Coriolanus and the plebs

Coriolan/us, Hangar 858 MOD St Athan, 17 August 2012

The audience gathered for this National Theatre Wales production under a mist of light rain outside the doors of a disused aircraft hangar at a former RAF base in South Wales.

Wireless headphones were issued to everyone, which for the moment played nothing but ambient noises.

Finally the vast doors of the hangar slid open and we moved as one large crowd, walking towards the centre of the vast space, which was empty save for two rows of concrete blocks forming a transverse corridor just over halfway in and some caravans to our right.

A van full of noisy people had also driven in through the doors and gradually overtook the advancing audience.

It then became apparent that the performance had already begun: we the audience were the mob descending on Rome’s grain store and the actors in the van that had joined us were the rebellious citizens.

The denunciations of Martius Caius rang out. The voices of the miked-up actors were fed into our headphones and cameras followed the action, projecting an image onto large screens dotted around the hangar. The less agile were thus able to sit and follow the action in its entirety. But most chose to follow the cast, moving across the vast space to points where action suddenly flared up.

The text was an amalgam of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and a translation into English of Brecht’s Coriolan. Taking the side of the starving people against their patrician oppressors, Brecht’s lines were used mostly in the crowd scenes. We were informed that rising prices were caused by God and that Coriolanus viewed asking for votes as “selling the Roman eagle”.

Coriolanus (Richard Lynch) stepped out of a car to address the people. The cars, vans and caravans created a modern, grimy feel. The Roman Senate held its session in the back of a white van, the participants huddled like builders on a tea break.

The general did not have the bearing of a patrician nobleman. Coriolanus looked and moved like a low-class villain. Apart from Menenius (Matthew Thomas), who was reasonably smart, the characters of the Roman nobles and tribunes appeared and sounded just like the common people. They even bore the same weapons. The clubs with which the people started their riot were the same that Coriolanus used against the Volsces.

The battle at Corioles saw him clamber over one of the breeze block walls and down into a narrow corridor full of junk and burnt out cars. In general, the production looked like a particularly violent episode of EastEnders from the Mitchell brothers era.

Volumnia’s (Rhian Morgan) conferences with Coriolanus took place not in a spacious palace, but inside her ramshackle caravan. She and Virgilia (Bethan Witcomb) begged mercy from Coriolanus not by daylight in a mansion but illuminated by car headlamps as if skulking down a dark alley.

The promenade performance meant that the observant and fleet of foot could position themselves close to the ever-changing centre of action. But on one occasion I found myself in the wrong spot. Coriolanus, complaining of the female Sicinius’ “absolute ‘shall’”, threw her aside and she stumbled backwards into me.

There was a hint that Coriolanus and Sicinius (Nia Gwynne) were settling unfinished business: a constant feature of the production was the absolute disdain that Sicinius expressed for him, communicated by the unsmiling contemptuous stare she fixed on Coriolanus during all their encounters.

A space at the rear of the hangar housed the directorial control caravan and was mostly used when Coriolanus removed himself from the main space to talk in lonely soliloquy.

This was also the site of his final confrontation with Aufidius (Richard Harrington), in which Coriolanus was shot dead like a gangster.

The summary execution reinforced the idea that the principal characters were low-grade crooks.

The class downgrade of the protagonists was reminiscent of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in which the story of Hitler was played out among cauliflower traders.

But this was neither Shakespeare’s nor Brecht’s vision but a unique and bleakly modern one.

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