Coriolanus, Rose Playhouse

by guest critic Gregory Forrest

The Rose is a unique venue: part studio theatre, part archaeological dig. Taking your seat to begin the performance, you are met with a cool breeze of black. Some sense of space exists around you, yet is imperceptible. Then, as the play begins, you are suddenly met with lights and depth and a sheer drop to a still underground lake. For this moment alone, The Rose is worth a look.

In Shakespeare’s battle-hardy tragedy, Caius Marcius is rebranded Coriolanus after defeating the Volscian army at Corioles. Yet the Romans he was fighting for suspect their military commander of cockiness and pride, exacting a series of political manoeuvres which bring him crashing back down to earth.

Playing to the strengths of the space, Kate Littlewood’s production splits the action of the night across the water, and cleverly uses an interplay of foreground and background to its advantage. The text is distilled down to its basic essence with a clean edit. Precisely why Coriolanus decides to betray his city is never fully explored in this production, but then neither is it given much room in Shakespeare’s original text. Instead, we are asked to imagine how motivations might surface from perceived maternal abandonment and homo-erotic repression. The play is teeming with sexual tensions and Freudian daydreams, many of which are teased out in Littlewood’s direction.

Vocally, Chris Royle is a standout leading man as Coriolanus, moving from fury to whisper while sustaining both command and sincerity. Volumnia, mother of the victorious warrior, remains one of Shakespeare’s most difficult characters: a cold mix of calculation, stern affection, and downright obsession with bodily wounds. Alexandra Parker rises to the challenge, and while appealing against her son’s warpath against his own family, Parker’s performance suggests that difficult mix of assurance and agony. And when Coriolanus responds with silence, every second is torturous.

The play’s urgency is immensely political: the power of a misguided majority; leaders who lack respect for the people they rule. Thankfully, by grounding this in the themes of the text, such allusions do not come across as ‘blah blah Brexit’, but rather as a genuine exploration of Shakespeare’s political incisiveness. Patterns of history, even when immortalised in art, have a tendency to repeat themselves.

The costumes badly needs distressing (shirts still have the folds from their Primark packaging). Props are amateur, blood is jam, etc etc. Yet the production has a strong sense of the electricity of each moment which elevates the evening above its aesthetics. This is an imperfect and slightly brash take on Shakespeare’s tragedy, yet it excels in individual moments and plays to its strengths to offer a compelling take on a difficult text.

Coriolanus runs through 15 September.

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