Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays. He wrote several Roman plays, the best known of which are Julius Caesar and its sequel Antony and Cleopatra.
Coriolanus tells the story of Caius Martius, a Roman general, who is given the honorary title of Coriolanus after a famous victory over Rome’s enemy Tullus Aufidius at Corioles. As a reward the senate offers him the role of consul but scheming tribunes Brutus and Sicinius convince the plebeians that Coriolanus is a traitor and exile him. In disgust Coriolanus allies with his former enemy to invade and conquer Rome. It is only the intervention of his wife and mother which persuades him to relent. But his new allies are far from forgiving of this turnabout.
Artistic director Robert Hastie has moved Coriolanus from the traditional Roman period to modern times. The soldiers wear full camouflage gear, the politicians are in suits – and some of them are played by women. There isn’t a toga in sight. Hastie has form with Shakespeare’s Roman plays, having previously brought a critically acclaimed modernised Julius Caesar to the Crucible. He has triumphed again with this intense and strong production.
Playing a brooding Coriolanus is Tom Bateman, familiar to TV viewers from leading roles in Beecham House, Vanity Fair and Jekyll and Hyde. He gives the role great gravitas. This is a soldier’s soldier and highly skilled in the art of warfare. Diplomacy, not so much. Bateman spits out Shakespeare’s verse with vitriol, but does well to achieve a tender contrast when speaking with his wife and mother, though the transition from dogmatic resistance to melting at his mother’s pleas did feel a little sudden. Having said that, as a soldier he is entirely believable and transcends the problems modern audiences sometimes have understanding language that is over 400 years old.
As Volumnia, Stella Gonet gives a passionate articulate performance. She achieves the difficult task of speaking to Coriolanus both as her son and as a soldier. She is a soldier’s proud mother, not at all concerned with his wounds from the battle – these only add to her pride.
In an interesting directorial decision, Virgilia (Hermon Berhane) is deaf and her few speeches are in sign language with surtitles. Other characters use sign language when speaking to her. The silence adds to the intensity of her relationship with Coriolanus and maybe to her lack of influence compared with his mother.
All the actors are strong, this is a very talented cast. Malcolm Sinclair as popular elder statesman Menenius is spot on – relaxed, urbane and shrewd. Katy Stephens’ Cominius is excellent – her diction is probably the clearest of all the cast and it never seems odd that a woman is playing a Roman general. Also Alex Young and Remmie Milner as tribunes Brutus and Sicinius play their parts well. It’s nice to see women being given some meaty roles in a Shakespeare play.
The set is very simple but really effective being played mainly in a plain open space. Regular Crucible attenders will be quick to notice that a whole row has been removed from the audience making the theatre look like a modern parliament interior, with the senators having desks and microphones below stage level. It also provides another level for the actors to use. On several occasions lines are delivered from the audience and the crowd (played by members of Sheffield People’s Theatre) use these areas well.
The sound effects and lighting for the battle scenes are excellent, evoking the feel of the chaos and intensity of warfare. The stage fighting between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Theo Ogundipe) is very well done – especially difficult to pull off in the round.
Overall this is a very entertaining production which has the audience on the edge of their seats – especially in the very intense second half.
Coriolanus continues at the Crucible Theatre until 28 March.