14th March, 2020 matinee
“Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am”
Do actions speak louder than words? In order for people to have faith in them, do leaders need the skill of language, and the ability to connect? These questions are the crux of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Its title character is a skilled and successful fighter, but when attempting to become Consul, he doesn’t convince the people of Rome and is banished, which in turn leads him to turn to his old enemy Aufidius, for the two of them to then turn on Rome together. This is my first encounter with Coriolanus. I imagine some productions could take a more intimate approach, focusing on the psychology of the characters and the inner machinations of power grabs. Here, Robert Hastie’s production, confidently led by Tom Bateman, uses the Crucible’s large forum stage to great effect, placing the city and its people, including the audience, at its centre.
Ben Stones’ set borrows much from his design for Julius Caesar in 2017. Sunken desks with microphones and leather chairs, rows of strip lights, and wooden panels complete with a Roman insignia stretch out into the auditorium so we too are part of the senate. The citizens play many of their scenes amongst us, and Hastie peoples his production with dedicated members from the Sheffield People’s Theatre. From this plush setting comes barbed wire fences to show us the world in which Coriolanus is more at home: the battlefield. Bateman has a strong physical prowess as demonstrated in Renny Krupinksy’s inventive and long fight scenes, including a rather gory death. So when Coriolanus attempts to make Consul, his wounds are not enough to prove him. Standing on a soapbox in the marketplace in rags (‘the gown of humility’), he proves he cannot appeal to the common man: ‘Must I with base tongue give my noble heart’. What’s fascinating is that so many of Shakespeare’s plays are about the act of seeming, something which often brings about characters’ downfalls. Yet here is a man whose downfall comes from his inability to play the part.
In this production, Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia (Hermon Berhane) is hearing impaired, leading to the clever incorporation of British Sign Language and captioning. The creative integration of BSL and audio-visual technologies in British theatre has mainly been pioneered by Graeae, so kudos to the Crucible for championing this on their main stage. It also has added effects. For a play so much about the art of rhetoric, these scenes see the characters communicate differently, making us think about how we interact with language as a tool. It also adds intimacy to the few scenes between Coriolanus and Virgilia, particularly in the scene where she and Volumnia persuade him to not give up on Rome. When we see these exchanges, I think it allows us to sympathise more with him as we see that he can communicate, thoughtfully and skilfully, something which he lacks the power to do with the plebeians in the marketplace.
There’s fine support, particularly from Stella Gonet as his mother, Volumnia. She worships her son as a hero, proudly counting his scars and boasting that ‘[blood] more becomes a man/ Than gilt his trophy’. But she’s also a gifted and charismatic orator and has the ability to show empathy. Elsewhere, Malcom Sinclair has the weariness of the professional politician, and Kate Rutter leads the citizens very convincingly. When the people of Rome discover that Coriolanus has turned against them, she walks across the stage saying ‘When I said, banish him, I said 'twas pity’, a reminder that the people don’t always know best even if they do have the collective voice of power. Like Hastie’s first production as AD, this is sharp storytelling, confidently acted, which uses the space to embrace the people in a way that theatre does best.
Coriolanus plays at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 28th March, 2020
|Tom Bateman and Stella Gonet in Coriolanus.|
Credit: Johan Persson