A performance of thrilling highs and disappointing lows
Proclaimed by T. S. Eliot to be a superior play to Hamlet but rejected as unworthy of comparison to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies by the critic A. C. Bradley, Coriolanus apparently divides opinion among those who have the time and the patience to peruse Shakespeare’s oeuvre. There are comparatively few extended soliloquys and no particularly quotable lines of the ‘to be or not to be’ and ‘wherefore art thou Romeo’ sort (though I think “prepare thy brow to frown” is one of the most beautiful warning-cum-threats ever written). These facts of the play itself, alongside the boldly minimal set design of this production, put a lot of pressure on the actors and their interactions in building this colossal narrative.
The spartan approach to set design (Jack Parham) meant that there was almost nothing on the stage itself at all, the outer edges of the stage adorned with evenly spaced broad strips of white hanging fabric, evocative of the temple columns so familiar from the myriad films set in Ancient Rome. A related, and equally bold decision was to have all six performers onstage for the entire play, though the presence of uninvolved actors was not distracting at all, and scene changes were smoothed effectively by well timed lighting changes and carefully planned positional transitions. The lighting (Rebecca Fry) was also fairly minimal, but when it was used it was used to great effect – in a battle scene which involved all of the performers the decision to use strobe lighting was a brave one, but it worked extremely well. A slightly confusing decision was not to remove the streaks of blood on the performers’ faces in when they switched roles, making the characters slightly difficult to differentiate and the plot a little opaque.
Given the above, this play was going to live or die with the minutiae of the acting; and it seemed to do both.
With strange uniformity, the most overwhelmingly positive things about this performance in terms of acting can be confined to everything from the neck upwards. Bear with me. The Corpus Playroom being such a small venue, you can see every tiny feature of the performers’ faces; thankfully, this played to the strengths of this cast. The title role, Coriolanus (Adam Mirsky), was brought to life with such vigour that the audience jumped at several moments as he berated and remonstrated in equal measure. With his face alone, he conveyed the indignance at praise that makes this role so fascinating, and was equally confident in defiance, condemnation, and internal conflict. Volumnia too (Sabrina Gilby) is worthy of particular praise for the depth of feeling and convincing maternal power that were brought to her mother-son interactions with Coriolanus through her facial expressions. Likewise, in a particularly captivating early scene between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Seun Adekoya), both actors brought mad blood-lust to their respective roles, but each differed from the other enough to avoid simply mirroring one another.
My choice of the neck as dividing line between the positives of the play and the negatives is a precise one: another positive feature of this performance that stood out was the vocal performances and the captivating variety that they brought to each role. All of the performers enlivened their roles with their voices, but a particular mention must go to the Tribunes (Elise Hagan), who were differentiated by the one actress with total unambiguity through the use of subtly different vocal qualities; this would’ve been enough differentiation even if it weren’t for the (less subtle but no less convincing) use of differing body-languages for the two characters. Coriolanus also, despite a fairly uniformly shouty opening few minutes, did later have the audience hanging on his every bitter outburst.
From the neck down however (the exception being Hagan’s fantastically smooth shifts of body language), the cast disappointed bitterly. While it is a strange thing to notice, it was indicative of the problem that at barely any moments were the performers’ hands raised above their waists. All seemed to have some kind of neck-down paralysis and barely used the rest of their bodies to bring their roles to life at all. Relatedly, a distinct lack of physical interaction between characters led to a sense of vast distance between them, none seeming particularly emotionally connected to any other. This was most worrying in the case of Coriolanus’s relationships with his wife Virgilia (Emma Corrin) and his mother Volumnia. A notable exception to this rule was an extremely well-choreographed brawl between Coriolanus and Aufidius; this was the only time that physical contact between characters seemed natural, and other such scenes (for example, one involving a cringingly awkward display of comradeship between Coriolanus and Cominius (Xelia Mendes-Jones), and another involving an intimate scene with no warmth at all between Coriolanus and his wife Virgilia (Emma Corrin)) felt rather forced and unnatural.
Of course, a lot of the difficulties came from the fact that three of the six performers played more than one part, and this is no mean feat. Hagan was by far the most convincing, but the other performers who undertook this task (Mendes-Jones and Corrin) were also successful to a certain degree. The latter two did have issues differentiating their roles, but given the directorial decisions not to remove blood from their faces or change their costumes noticeably, this was an extremely difficult task to begin with.
Because the highs here were so high and the lows so low, it seems inappropriate to me to give this performance a star-rating. To average across the performance would award it three, perhaps three-and-a-half stars – but there was no aspect that was so middling. I will decline to give it a rating here, but this does not mean it is not deserving of one, just that none would do it full justice.
Coriolanus is on at the Corpus Playroom until the 3rd of March. Tickets are £6-10 on Fri/Sat.