The man was noble but with his last attempt he wiped it out; destroy’d his country, and his name remains to the ensuing age abhorr’d.
Lucy Clarke has taken on a monumental task in staging Coriolanus. Arguably one of Shakespeare’s most unsympathetic of protagonists to begin with, the director has stripped Coriolanus’ character down to the bare elements of personal honour and ambition. From this emerges a parable of the contemporary struggles of a citizen commonwealth pitted against ring-master politicians. With the addition of some gender bending, accommodating both a modern audience and casting call, the stage is set for a truly original interpretation of this underappreciated Shakespearean tragedy.
Thought to have been written between 1605 and 1608, the original play would have resonated with popular audiences for its portrayal of an overlooked and overtly manipulated plebeian class. For Britons of the time, coming fresh from the Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604) and Tyrone’s Rebellion (1594-1603), where press-ganging for military service was common among London’s slums, theatre punters would likely have seen Coriolanus as a rampant critique of their self-appointed ‘representatives’. The play provided a forum for the ever present debate in British politics of the time on constitutional monarchy and the power of the nobility over the mobility.
For the modern audience, and for Clarke, Coriolanus is prototypical of an especially hair-raising episode of Prime Minister’s Questions, whereby one is left physically sickened by the ethical black-whole that is parliament. It speaks of the cuts to Britain’s welfare state, and the increasing divides in British society based on the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. In Rome’s enemy, the Volscians, we see the workings of minority discourses on gender and race, Clarke cleverly casting an all-female Volscian hoard, that has been given a strong lead in Annie von Chacha Hayter, playing Tullus Aufidius.
Perhaps ironically for a piece with such fascistic undertones, the sneak peek I was privy to last Sunday proved to be a triumph of the feminine. Volumnia’s chastisement of her son, Coriolanus (one of the best speeches for a female character in Shakespeare) was delivered flawlessly. This was matched by the quiet contempt of Tullus Aufidius, and perfectly juxtaposed with the ever-changeable nature of the plebeian mob.
Learned and illiterate alike will be pleased to know that almost 1000 lines have been cut from the original script, which does in parts wax quite un-lyrical on the posturing of politics. This adaptation is snappy and succinct, unmasking the intrigue within so-called democracy and the self-aggrandising manipulations of a political class determined to master the game, sparing none in the process.
With a stunning outdoor setting in the quad of Regents Park, Coriolanus (running from 16-18 February) is not to be missed.
‘Coriolanus’ runs at Regent’s Park from 16-18 February. For more information and to book tickets, please visit their Facebook page.