Coriolanus is a play about Roman political history – a subject that is incredibly close to my heart, but, I must concede, is something of a niche interest in the world at large. However, to use that great historical cliché, the patterns and narratives of Coriolanus echo down the ages, and have found themselves acted out again and again in more recent times. It was only a few years ago that Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a film version of this play, set in the nondescript Balkans. For director Lucy Clarke, this is a play that speaks to Cameron’s Britain – the elite and unassailable heights of British politics inducing protests over welfare cuts, rather than the corn riots, which act as a prelude to Coriolanus.
So, we have abused, impotent and mistreated plebs, contrasted against the patrician elite who are beset by infighting and competition. This dichotomy will be stressed in the production by having the “faintly fascistic” senators and tribunes neatly suited and booted, permanently covered by attendants with umbrellas, whilst the plebeians will be visibly soaked to the skin – a highly exciting directorial choice, which I can’t help but worry might cause some health issues over the course of 3 successive shows, outside in Regent’s Park quad.
Into this fraught political atmosphere comes our “relentless dick” (Taylor’s words) of a protagonist, Will Taylor as Coriolanus. The great hero of Rome, who leads Roman armies to victory against the Volscians in the earliest days of the republic, only to be conspired against by the tribunes and cast out by the fickle masses when he attempts to run for office. It is undeniably gripping narrative, that only gets better when the exiled general, railing against the democratic values which Rome so cherishes, decides to side with his former enemies and lead their armies against the walls of Rome, which have lost their sole defender through petty politicking.
The great worry with Coriolanus is that it is so intolerably long – not just long, but dense and packed full of obscure Roman political discussion. Hearteningly, the director (who is writing her thesis on this play), has been merciless in her cuts – enormous baggy speeches, irrelevant subplots and tedious political intricacies have been thrown out entirely, to focus on a streamlined and engaging narrative, which promises for a night of high drama.
One of the few parts of this production that has been spared the editors knife are the speeches of Volumnia (Victoria Gawlik), which have always been regarded as one of the highest of pathos in Coriolanus. I was lucky enough to see the scene where Coriolanus’ mother, wife and son all beg him not to make war on his former home – and I can safely say that leaving these speeches uncut was a wise move directorially speaking. So, brave the cold, and make your way to Regent’s Park this week, if an evening of high political drama and great men reduced to tears sounds like your cup of tea.
Coriolanus, Regent’s Park Quad, 16th-18th February, 7.30