"Gwynne portrays a glamourous disciplinarian, a furious mother who defends her son like a cat does her kittens, and a bedraggled and desperate figure begging Coriolanus to relent on war."
Act one, scene nine in the RSC’s Coriolanus, and the show has to be stopped – one of the three metal shutters used in the production has broken. It demonstrates that even the most renowned of companies can hit technical glitches, and is promptly and calmly (at least on the face of it) dealt with by the stage crew and front of house team. Following the mending of the set, the show returns to the beginning of scene nine, where Cominius and his men are returning from victory in battle. In light of the recent hiccup and repair, instead of saying “Well fought, well fought” to his soldiers, Cominius (played by Charles Aitken) comes out with “Well fixed, well fixed” – much to the amusement of the audience.
He continues to Coriolanus, “If I should tell thee o'er this thy day's work, Thou'ldst not believe thy deeds.” Sope Dirisu, as Coriolanus, can’t help but laugh. It’s not a corpse that ruins any tension at this point, and the audience laugh with him; a line that isn’t usually funny becomes so. Not long after this, another shutter breaks, and the production does away with all of them for the remainder – in a move that doesn’t appear to have any detrimental effect on things.
In regards to the planned events of this Angus Jackson-directed show, there isn’t quite enough brutality and aggression when there’s a big group swordfight, but the sound of the weapons clinking together is fantastic. Also, the one-on-one between the protagonist and Aufidius is well choreographed, pacy, fierce, and intense.
Coriolanus and Aufidius’ relationship is memorably and humorously interpreted. “Thou hast beat me out Twelve several times,” Aufidius tells Coriolanus, “and I have nightly since Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me.” James Corrigan speaks the line as if he sexually desires his old opponent, as part of a finely executed monologue. Such an interpretation lends itself excellently to the gossip that follows between Aufidius’ servants, and highlights the innuendo present in phrases like “leave his passage polled”.
The stand-out performance is provided by Haydn Gwynne in the role of Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. Compelling in voice with every word she utters, Gwynne expertly shows how layered the character is. She portrays a glamourous disciplinarian, a furious mother who defends her son like a cat does her kittens, and a bedraggled and desperate figure begging Coriolanus to relent on war.
Sope Dirisu doesn't quite have as much presence as you might hope for in the title role, and I wouldn't really call the show an emotional rollercoaster – but it is possessing of bold directorial decisions and some admirable acting. Overall, it’s an inventive and often funny telling of a great tragic story – even when it’s shutter-less.
Coriolanus is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 14 October. It then plays at the Barbican Theatre from 6-18 November.
Photos by Helen Maybanks © RSC
Related Articles: Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray