Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Robert Hastie
‘It’s a great text, but not a great play.’ Thus Laurence Olivier on Shakespeare’s mostly perfectly shaped tragedy, a play admired by scholars but generally not by directors or by the general public, who rarely get the chance to see it. So, this production by the Crucible’s artistic director Robert Hastie is a rare opportunity to gauge the truth of Olivier’s Olympian pronouncement.
Of course, Olivier spoke with authority, having twice played the role himself, to great acclaim: Caius Martius – he gains the title ‘Coriolanus’ after routing the invading tribe of Volscians from the Roman possession of Corioli – is an arrogant patrician, steeped in contempt for the common people and dismissive of their demands for famine relief. If that was all there was to him, he would be easily dismissed; but Martius is not just a privileged oik, he is also a soldier of formidable courage and inspiring oratory, whose feats in battle earn him a place in the Senate. Yet when the people turn against him and revoke his Consulship, he removes himself from Rome and joins forces with the vanquished Volscian commander Aufidius to wreak revenge on his enemies. Only when appeals for clemency from his wife and mother break his resolve do the Volscians turn on him, leading to his bloody overthrow. As a character, Martius constantly wrong-foots an audience, repelling them and inviting their sympathy by turns: it’s perhaps because he’s such a recognisable personality – you don’t have to search far to find real life equivalents nearer our own time – that we feel so equivocal about him.
Setting the action in a non-specific time period that could be any point in the last sixty years, Hastie and his designer Ben Stones make effective use of the large stage of the Crucible’s main auditorium, with the front row stalls turned into desks for the Senate scenes while the main space remains bare to represent the battles. It’s a fast-paced production of a fast-paced play, with the early scenes establishing both the socio-political context of the period as well as Caius Martius’ family life with astonishing rapidity, and the two-hour runtime (actually two hours and twenty minutes’, without the interval) passes at a breakneck pace. Unfortunately a slightly botched climax, involving some textual cutting and pasting, leads to a less than overwhelming conclusion, though it’s an insightful touch of Hastie’s to have Martius ‘killed’ not by a Volscian but by one of his fellow generals who had followed him into exile.
In the role of Martius, Tom Bateman dominates the stage, a tall, rangy figure in combat fatigues, and he deals confidently and intelligently with the verse. The trap that many performers of this role fall into – offering a portrayal of generalised rage and contempt – is one Bateman avoids and his final concession to Stella Gonet’s regal Volumia is a genuinely affecting moment. The homoerotic undertones in Martius’ relationship with his ‘mirror-image’ Aufidius (Theo Ogundipe) are explored but not pruriently emphasised. It’s a well-rounded depiction of a young man whose flaws and virtues are both on the grandest scale.
But the evening’s finest performance comes from the veteran Malcolm Sinclair in the grateful role of Menenius, a Roman senator instantly recognisable as a Macmillanite Tory MP. From his first appearance, playing a magnificent game of divide and rule with the hungry citizens to his final pleading confrontation with Martius before the gates of Rome, Sinclair represents the play’s conscience and he perfectly captures the discreet clubman’s comedy of the role. Elsewhere, in one of several examples of reverse gender casting, Katy Stephens makes far more of the General Cominius than is suggested in the text.
A largely successful attempt at this ‘difficult’ play, then, which should acquire even greater power and depth as the run progresses.
Runs until 28th March 2020