Coriolanus, The Globe, 22 May 2012
Japanese theatre company Chiten presented a minimalist reconstruction of Coriolanus with one actor (Dai Ishida) in the lead role and all other parts performed by a chorus of four (Satoko Abe, Shie Kubota, Saki Kohno and Yohei Kobayashi).
The production was uncompromising in the way it challenged the audience, refusing to spoon-feed them with easily digestible entertainment. This was very much in the spirit of Coriolanus himself: a man unwilling to pander to popular expectations.
The staging presented Coriolanus as the only clearly discernible character, and this reflected an aspect of his personality. Caius Martius was a single-minded egotist. From his perspective, he was the only person that really mattered and the rest of the world was an undistinguished blur of forces opposed to him.
It made sense then to have the other characters emerge from a chorus, so that they lacked distinct identities.
The starkness of the production was undercut by a vein of humour that first appeared when the musicians set out a range of instruments on stage including a metronome, frying pans and other odd items.
The chorus formed a human wheelbarrow to carry Coriolanus on stage. One of them walked on their hands bearing Coriolanus on his back while two others supported Coriolanus’ legs. The fourth led the way bearing the warrior’s wicker helmet as if in a formal procession. All five were dressed in a distinctive blue tie-dyed cloth.
After this unusual entry Coriolanus donned the helmet and brandished the baguette representing the bread demanded by the people. The chorus stood silently behind him as he launched into a long repetitive speech whose pace sped up and slowed down. He spoke of his disdain for the people and warned of impending war.
Coriolanus became the fixed centre of our attention, but we could not make eye contact with him, thus deepening the mystery presented to us.
Rather than facilitate naturalistic storytelling, the staging was being used to evoke an emotional response to the central character.
The chorus occasionally put on noh masks, one of which was worn on the back of the actor’s head. They carried bugles through which they speak and occasionally make blowing noises.
When Coriolanus went to war against Aufidius and Volscians he shouted at his soldiers to advance. He then knelt and lit a candle, which the chorus, stood behind him, impishly tried to blow out.
As the red candle produced a flow a wax he poured the hot substance onto his arm and smeared the colouring onto to his head to represent wounds inflicted in battle. That these wounds were in effect self-inflicted demonstrated his intimate connection with them and his willingness to suffer them.
The chorus represented the common people by bleating like sheep. Once Caius Martius had been awarded his new name, they repeatedly chanted it while dancing to the rhythm of their own words.
Once Coriolanus became obliged to canvas for the people’s votes, the chorus stood around chewing surlily on baguettes and spoke slowly to indicate their dislike of him.
They reverted to the human wheelbarrow positions they adopted at the start to bear Coriolanus on stage, but without him onboard. This symbolised their unwillingness to support him in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
The confusion caused by claim and counterclaim centring on Coriolanus’ election was dramatised by having Coriolanus walk round in a large circle with the others following him. He walked faster and faster until they fell away reeling in giddiness, before accusing him of treason.
The scene in which Coriolanus’ banishment was discussed by a Roman and a Volscian was performed as comedy, with each of them forgetting their lines and being prompted by the other two members of the chorus.
The banished Coriolanus appeared with his hair down carrying bread on his back in the wicker helmet that now served as a basket. The chorus stole these fresh loaves putting their half-eaten ones into the basket.
Coriolanus’ recruitment into the Volscian army saw him put his head back under the basket and carry his red candle, which indicated his willingness to be wounded in battle.
As the performance moved into the key scene in which Coriolanus surrendered to the entreaties of his mother, it was possible to detect the other characters becoming more distinct as Coriolanus’ power and egotism waned.
As he gradually began to see the world through other’s eyes, the pretence of his splendid isolation crumpled. His family began to emerge from the chorus.
Volumnia knelt holding her arms open at her sides as she shuffled forward, while Coriolanus stood on the stage left pillar seat looking down on Valeria and Martius at his feet. Martius was played by a member of the chorus crouching on his knees with a basket helmet pretending to be small. At the times when she was in motion, Valeria would tip-toe leaning forward in an almost balletic pose.
Still in her kneeling position, Volumnia arched backwards as she implored her son to show mercy to the Romans. Volumnia intoned and sang, causing Coriolanus to groan in discomfort. As with much else in the production, this sequence was designed to evoke feeling rather than present a naturalistic dialogue.
Volumnia, Valeria and Martius all turned to face Coriolanus, and then they all faced away again. He drew his sword and held it over them symbolising his readiness to attack Rome. But finally he dropped the sword to the ground. It was telling that he used a real sword at this point and not the baguette that he had previously brandished as a weapon. The change underlined the seriousness of the threatened violence. His capitulation to his family aroused a commensurate sense of relief.
The chorus formed into a line representing the Volscians, who accused Coriolanus of treachery. They seized him, and he soon fell dead downstage. Aufidius put his foot on Coriolanus in triumph. The chorus tried to carry him away but could not lift the body. They just left him there and exited making imploring gestures and beckoning towards the audience.
We were given the impression that Coriolanus was an alien and slightly absurd figure. This accurately reflected the modern sensibility that cannot sympathise with someone who would refuse food to the hungry and pursue his own martial agenda to the point of self-destruction.