Coriolanus review – political powerplay that packs a punch

Crucible, Sheffield
An arrogant elite, populist fury … Robert Hastie charts the rise and fall of Tom Bateman’s hero with a modern-day edge

For all of its ruthless violence and ferocious militarism, Coriolanus is about political rhetoric and powerplay at its core. Robert Hastie’s production draws our eye to the strategising and bloodlessness.

The stage is an airy grey senate with desks and microphones in the style of a 21st-century state assembly room, and modern dress – power suits, stilettos, briefcases – brings the politics yet closer to home. Here is the rise and fall of the strongman leader; the seizing back of power by the people; the clash between the arrogant elite and the overlooked masses; and the strategic whipping-up of populist fury.

There is nowhere outside of the political domain: protestors emerge from within the auditorium to declare their demands to the senate and even Coriolanus’s family home appears like a parliamentary backroom.

As a production, its success lies in its presentation of politics as a performance in persuasion, in myth-building and in manipulation. As a performance, it has highs but also some flatness. Tom Bateman, as a fresh-faced, athletic Coriolanus, puts in a committed performance that intermittently combusts into fierceness – “I banish you,” he roars at Rome on his expulsion. But there are not always enough hairs raised and though he becomes rougher around the edges as he goes along, he appears a little too good-natured and coltish, without the brute, locked-in intensity of a soldier who trusts only in the actions of war, not the words or customs outside it.

Hermon Berhane as Virgilia in Coriolanus
Poignancy … Hermon Berhane as Virgilia. Photograph: Johan Persson

His arch-enemy, Aufidius, played by Theo Ogundipe, has a more potent presence even if he overeggs it at times. There is no sign of Coriolanus’s son, while his wife, Virgilia (Hermon Berhane), uses sign language, and the tender physicality of their exchanges gives their relationship a surprising poignancy. Stella Gonet is a forceful strategist and compelling to watch as Coriolanus’s mother, every bit the modern-day politician and alert to the powers of persuasion. So is Malcolm Sinclair as Menenius, the silver-tongued senator of Rome in his expensive three-piece suit, with an unctuous voice that is clipped by privilege.

Hastie has returned to Ben Stones’s senate stage design from his production of Julius Caesar, but there is much more to his classy set and Lucy Carter’s lighting, which gesture towards large-scale death and destruction through spotlights that rove around the auditorium and smoke that rises off the martial figures who point their guns outwards, towards us.

Barely any blood is spilled, though its suggestion looms large. Just as in Ralph Fiennes’s film, the warfare is of a recognisably contemporary kind, from the army fatigues to the rattle of automatic gunfire and wire fences. There are some dramatic fights, too, between Aufidius and Coriolanus, and the play’s key scenes carry punch, but their power does not well up to create a bigger whole.

The final vision, of the senate continuing its political drama even as Coriolanus lies dying, is well choreographed. We feel the heartlessness of Roman politics more than the tragedy of his death.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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