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FringeReview UK 2017

Low Down

Directed by Angus Jackson Coriolanus transfers to the barbican for a brief run after its Stratford outing, prelude to the three other roman plays which enjoy a longer spell. Robert Innes Hopkins provides a sparse flexible design. Mira Calix’ music directed by Jack Hopkins is largely choral and solo-vocal, though with a violin and cello duet all amplified by Carolyn Downing. Richard Howell’s lighting too suffuses gloom and at key points, like the end, glares a blinding halo as we return to a mythic frieze.


The RSC’s Barbican transfer of Coriolanus enjoys a lonely brief eminence before the other three Roman plays play in parallel till late January, conceived in modern dress by the season’s artistic director, Angus Jackson. Three of the cast return to those plays at least twice, otherwise this cast’s unique to this play, though the conception’s returned to in Titus Andronicus.


Anyone who’s seen the superb 2012 Ralph Fiennes film will recognize the crowd. Here though it’s not war-torn Yugoslavia but a society snapping at the ruling elite’s austerity measures. Citizens fling themselves at a lone grain lifter on stage retreating behind a mesh-gate interior and internal prosc-arch, key to other gated happenings and processionals in Robert Innes Hopkins’ sparse flexible design. It’s a production playing with timeliness and timelessness. Mira Calix’ music directed by Jack Hopkins is largely choral and solo-vocal, though with a violin and cello duet all amplified by Carolyn Downing. It too amplifies a mythic dimension connecting back to more than the everyday quotidian clothing – hand-out and hand-made – that soon counterpoint each other in a stand-off. Richard Howell’s lighting too suffuses gloom and at key points, like the end, glares a blinding halo as we return to a mythic frieze.


When that lifter’s safely behind the mesh a terrific melee of despair ensues as citizens hurl themselves up the mesh. It’s this energy that Jackson suggests might win out if only a gifted leader focus it. Pure Trotsky, of course, where a ready leader harnesses that energy. Here we see one thing repeated in the 2011 riots: no focus.


Jackson’s production gains real strength in patiently giving the rhetoric and arguments their space. Each citizen’s given air to speak, to etch their particular grievance or lack of it. The way the audience laugh at the conniving peoples’ tribunes and crowd’s volte-faces later on show how well this succeeded.


The downside’s a sudden drop in energy as the crowd hang about limply to make eminently reasonable debating points. There’s little sense of pent-up fury let alone danger when the suited Patricians stroll out in evening dress, Paul Jesson’s authoritative peacemaker Menenius to the fore. He’s more reasonable than wholly commanding as befits his nature, also surrogate father to Caius Martius later Coriolanus.


Sope Dirisu’s assumption of the role after his towering Cassius Clay in 2016’s Donmar One Night in Miami should certainly be inspired, and the Martius side certainly rings with Roman bronze: he has presence, martial vigour and is superb in Terry King’s fight scenes, indeed anywhere near soldiery he gains cubits. And there’s the right uptight uprightness in this least inward of Shakespeare’s Roman heroes, though much is claimed for his inwardness here. Dirisu lacks as yet the froideur so palpable in Fiennes, or to reference another version we can still see, Alan Howard’s 1984 BBC production after his RSC performances. Vocally too – like several in the cast – he just misses that rasping ice-cutter to slice his riposte to those who exile him for pride in his ‘I banish you’; though his ‘There is a world elsewhere’ shrugs a fine dignity as he turns his back. Dirisu could be a magnificent Shakesperean actor; these are very early days.


Coriolanus, as he becomes, has simply bypassed a crucial humanizing development. His nearest equivalent, Othello was in armour when his arms had seven years’ pith, a soldier – and briefly slave – all his life. He hardly lacks warmth or humanity, and it can’t all be class.


But it can be its inseparable twin, upbringing. Haydn Gwynne’s Volumnia here centres the drama, in both the Oedipal passion palpable between Coriolanus and herself in long embraces, twin to that other conflict-darkened love, the homoerotic one between Coriolanus and arch-enemy Volscian Tullus Aufidius.


It’s in these two violent loves the whole play’s dynamics twist on. They girt with fire the forum of reasonable arguments so patiently worked elsewhere, almost contradicting their relevance, though crucially Volumnia’s exhortations to Coriolanus to show humility on his election as Consul is superb: her politic, infuriated icy exhortations and near-disowning of his arrogance with her own: ‘Do as thy list,/Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck’dst it from me:/But owe thy pride thyself.’


Her son’s not the only one damaged by upbringing in Gwynne’s unblinking assumption; Coriolanus is perhaps the perfect damage wrought over generations. Gwynne’s commanding, with little room given to the ‘gracious silence’ of Hannah Morrish’s Virgilia (one’s grateful she’s one of the three of this cast who’ll return in other productions). No wonder by the end you feel in this production with Menenius and the rest that Volumnia’s both Consuls at once. In fact there’s no-one else bar Menenius who’s even pretending to be one, Charles Aitken’s decent, loyal Cominius having already served. Gwynne commands Rome, and at least makes a case for patrician virtue. In her crumbling suppliant pilgrimage later to plead with her son not to sack Rome and tread over her womb, you see an arc of class pride shatter down to a core of what true strength she has, her own. That’s enough.


James Corrigan’s Aufidius exudes some intensity and you believe him when he claims ‘when I see thee here,/Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart/Than when I first my wedded mistress saw/bestride my threshold.’ The audience laugh at the way Corrigan manages that so when he comes to the dream ’down together in my sleep’ the innocent ‘fisting each other’s throats’ elicits laughter, and a little later ‘passage’ with a further eruption suggests Julian Cleary’s editing the text. Since the production taking hints studs the plebs, tribunes and servants with comedy (those who in Act IV don’t believe the pilgrim is Coriolanus) particularly in omitting more sober lines, the inevitability in comic feeling fringes this deeply serious bonding. Corrigan’s reaction at the end lamenting over what he’s wrought is of a piece with mourning his better half gone.


There’s a useful gender-switch of roles in the tribunes, Martina Laird’s subtler Junius Brutus, and Jackie Morrison’s truculent Sicinius, Katherine Toy’s Valeria with other roles and Justine Marriott’s Second Citizen stand out. Simon Yadoo’s active Herald and Barry Gill’s Aedile, the Citizen Smith attitudinsing of First Citizen Geoffrey Lumb etch distinctive marks but Tony Boncza and Ben Hall’s Titus Lartius are vocally distinctive too, as is Jesson and of course Gwynne.


It’s a Coriolanus memorable for its patient elaboration of the political as well as personal forces the central character’s torn apart by, and an active interrogation of the nature of democracy. If it can’t translate the wild anger of its opening moments into sizzling rhetoric and danger it’s because clarity’s a watchword Jackson rightly feels it’s worth erring on the side of. We’re left with a broken Coriolanus between the twin pillars of what he loves most. The scene where Volumnia and entourage, Coriolanus and Aufidius come together is climactic and beautifully drawn out here like the hollow faces the women present; but Shakespeare holds back Aufidius rapidly recalibrating after earlier slights.


Perhaps only opera could do justice to the skein of conflicted feelings here. Singularly, there was a musical Caius Martius featuring the young Peter Polycarpu at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1977; all who saw it agreed it should have transferred to the West End. Stranger things have happened to illuminate Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.