Reviewed – 7th September 2017
“an enlightening production that puts the audience in the action, and in the picture”
Coriolanus is often considered one of Shakespeare’s least accessible plays to stage; overly political, lacking comic relief and short of endearing characters. It is less often revived than his other tragedies. But this could be its attraction too – a challenge. One that the theatre company, ‘To The Elephant’, rise to with their stripped-down production at the Rose Playhouse.
In just ninety minutes, the story is told with startling clarity, and portrayed with a refreshing modernity – illustrating that the themes are just as relevant and potent today. What struck a chord with this production was the clear-cut demonstration that the issues concerning politics today are nothing new. They are merely recycled over again. Shakespeare’s setting was Ancient Rome, and he wrote it under King James’s absolutist rule nearly two thousand years later. And another five centuries after that, it is still pertinent. Director Kate Littlewood’s decision to use modern dress is entirely appropriate and serves to reinforce the story’s pertinence and engage the audience.
Coriolanus gets sucked into politics – it’s not really his background. He is pushed into total leadership, but hasn’t the capacity for it. He goes for the kill, that’s what is in his blood – and ultimately what destroys him. Sound familiar? Someone who goes into politics who does not have the skills for it, who is not prepared to listen or compromise?
The very capable cast has the unenviable task of performing this piece in the tiny, bare-board space of the Rose Playhouse. There is nowhere for them to hide. They pull this off impressively, using the audience to great effect. Indeed, the audience are the people. In the opening scene we are the masses, the unhappy populace. The actors sit among us and openly address us.
Chris Royle, possessing a voice replete with resonance and rhythm, plays the title role. Just before his first entrance, his charisma wanders onto the stage ahead of him. This is undoubtedly his show. Like a pit-bull he makes those closest to him wary of his unpredictability, his ability to switch to anger at a stroke. His mother (a commanding performance from Alexandra Parker) has bred him to be a fighter, and she is the only one who has control of the leash.
This atmosphere was maintained throughout, with the energy only dipping slightly midway; the cohesiveness of the ensemble cast peeling away momentarily. Despite some potentially confusing doubling as a soldier, Kate Marston gives a compelling yet fragile performance as Virgillia, the obedient wife. Far from being weak, her graciousness and silent tears lend a fierce dignity to her character.
Atilla Akinci is a potent Menenius, fond of Coriolanus but mindful of his faults, capturing well the balance between the two.
This is an enlightening production that puts the audience in the action, and in the picture. With Shakespeare it is always advisable to ‘swot up’ on the text and synopsis before going to witness it on stage. In the hands of ‘To The Elephant’ there is no need: their masterly telling of the story leaves no room for ambiguity. A highly entertaining evening, and a good chance to witness, if you haven’t already, Shakespeare in this small yet important venue.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
is at The Rose Playhouse until 15th September