Coriolanus, RSC Live From Stratford Upon Avon
Coriolanus is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I am aware that this probably puts me in the kind of minority that can usually be found looking for very specialist websites, but there it is. Partly this is because one of the great formative theatre experiences of my teenage years was seeing Toby Stephens play the title role (also for the RSC), but, barnstorming performances aside I think the play contains some of Shakespeare’s most exquisite language.
As it’s infrequently performed, I had high hopes for this RSC production – which in the event, does contain one magnificent central performance: from Haydn Gwynne as Volumnia, Coriolanus mother (we’ll come to Coriolanus himself in a minute). Gwynne is wonderful – she has complete mastery of the language, and takes her character from unsympathetic pushy mother to heart-rending despair, as she realises she has saved her city but probably killed her son. Volumnia is one of the few great Shakespearean roles for older women – surely another reason to dust off Coriolanus a little more often?
Like Hamlet without the prince, you can’t have Coriolanus without the man himself, and here lies the problem. Sope Dirisu certainly looks the part of the great soldier, but his performance for me falls flat. The text sometimes seems to be speaking him rather than the other way around, and he lacked the necessary charisma to make him believable as a leader of men. The lack of charisma sucks much of the life out of the play, as it makes it hard to care what happens to Coriolanus. It’s not that this is a bad performance – it has some lovely moments, such as when he finally breaks down in the face of Volumnia’s pleading – but for the production to work it needed to reach a higher level. I found that I was much more interested in James Corrigan’s Tullus Aufidius, which is a subtle and clever performance.
Perhaps part of the problem with Dirisu’s performance comes from the production itself, which can’t quite seem to make up its mind about things. Despite the modern dress, it doesn’t seem to want to commit to drawing parallels with contemporary events, but equally doesn’t quite commit to making it a personal or a family tragedy – or indeed anything else – either. Was Jackie Morrison’s tribune of the people meant to have shades of Nicola Sturgeon, or am I just looking for meaning where none exists?
I may possibly be making this sound like a disaster, which it wasn’t at all. I did enjoy it, and in Haydn Gwynne’s Volumnia it has one truly great and memorable performance. It just felt like a missed opportunity.
Coriolanus runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 14th October. It can then be seen at the Barbican, London 6th-18th November.