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GRIPPING, PROVOCATIVE AND PROFOUNDLY INSIGHTFUL

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CORIOLANUS
by William Shakespeare
directed by David Lawrence
The Bacchanals

at The Long Hall, Roseneath, Wellington
From 24 Jan 2013 to 2 Feb 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 25 Jan 2013


What if a highly successful capitalist was chosen to lead a political party but refused to play the political game by pretending he cared about ‘the people'? Or what if a great rugby player led his team to a victory with honourable scars to prove his valour in the field, but eschewed the niceties of sportsmanlike diplomacy towards his adoring but fickle public? And what if, when they turned against him, he absconded to another country reducing them to mortal fear that he would lead their team against them and demolish their pre-eminence? 

This is the territory Shakespeare's Coriolanus traverses, albeit in the field of war with the Volsces and back in a Rome, where the poor are starving and want leaders who will see them fed. But Caius Marcius Coriolanus does not believe the ‘plebs' should have the power of a popular vote. He sees their demands as rebellious, insolent sedition and believes the right to rule (and to food?) belongs only to the ‘nobility' and those who serve in war.

Drawn from Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (written in the late 1st Century AD and translated by Thomas North in 1579), scholars suggest Shakespeare wrote it in the context of the 1607 Midland Revolt where peasants rioted against the enclosure of common land. If Shakespeare's land holdings in Stratford and questions over the legal status of land surrounding the Blackfriars Theatre in London (where The King's Men began playing in 1608) helped to heighten his empathy with this anti-hero, the outcome still amounts to a powerful ‘cautionary tale' for all who display such “soaring insolence”.  

Wikipedia suggests the first recorded performances were in the 1660s, reflecting the political turmoil of the time (e.g. The Anglo-Spanish War, the consolidation of the British Empire…). But whichever way you look at it, Coriolanus captures a state of haves v have-nots / privilege v the discontent of the disempowered majority / the 1 percent v the 99, which relates to many eras of history, not least the present (cf. the recent Occupy movements).

Having timed The Tragedy of Julius Caesar to coincide with our last election, this Bacchanals production of The Tragedy of Coriolanus may be seen as a follow-through comment on the state of our nation and the Western World at large. It also reaches back to American history by presenting the Tribunes of the People – played with hard-line determintion by Brianne Kerr and Walter Plinge (who doubles as the director, David Lawrence) – in the likeness of ‘American Gothic', the iconic father /daughter painting by Grant Wood.

Along with a small stars 'n' stripes amid the detritus of Bronwyn Cheyne's intriguingly detailed design, the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) is also referenced in the western renegade costume worn by Joe Dekkers-Reihana as Tullus Aufidius, General of the Volsces army. (It occurs to me, now, that a pre-colonisation inter-tribal Maori Coriolanus could work very well in the wake of last year's hugely successful Maori Troilus and Cressida.)

It's quite a long haul to the Long Hall (behind Roseneath School and St Barnabas Church) – well signed and with cast members on hand to guide the way – and the old army hut venue proves ideal. Rather than the usual traverse space, this production opts for two rows of seats down one side which allows the aforementioned décor to make its statements and the all-important citizens and soldiers to ‘dress' the stage with their powerful presence as the drama unfolds.  

The Bacchanals' trademark conviviality greets us as they capture the Brechtian notion of parishioners presenting The Uprising of the People's Republic of Rome Against Caius Martius. All is relaxed and jocular until suddenly an apparently arrogant and imperious Caius Marcius, yet to be dubbed Coriolanus, passes through provoking the voices of discontent among the citizens who feel they cannot be undone when they are undone already.

Alex Greig excels in the title role, finding compelling justification in every aspect of the complex character so that we at least understand his attitudes and actions. There is an unnerving integrity in his refusal to lie for political advantage and he even compels our compassion as he wrestles with his conscience while at the effect of a strong-willed mother, Volumina (Jean Sergent), loving wife, Virgilia (Kirsty Bruce) and susceptible-to-conditioning children, Young Martius (Hugo Randall) and Young Martia (Lauren Wilson): all portrayed with deep-felt truth.  

Michael Ness brings quiet strength to Comminius, the Consul of Corioles, as he hands the trappings of office to his successor, which contrasts well with his despair at what it all leads to when Coriolanus crosses over to the other side. Tony Black adds weight to the ruling class as the First Senator of Rome.

As Caius Martius's best friend and advisor Menenius Agrippa, and a would-be mediator and advisor to the people, Salesi Le'ota is mockingly dispassionate, fully aware of the dynamics at play and their inevitable outcomes when certain choices are made.

Other roles are filled by Amy Griffin-Browne, Dasha Fedchuk, Hilary Penwarden, Morgan Rothwell and Rosanagh Kynoch. All 16 play out the story with a clarity that must be accredited to David Lawrence's ability to enrol them in such a thorough understanding of the text that all are equipped and aligned to their common purpose, of sharing its essence and intricacies with us.

Minimal changes of sashes, scarves and/or headwear allow for speedy transitions between citizens, senators and soldiers of the Roman or Volsces armies. Whenever anyone is ‘on' they are fully focused and contributing depth to the action. The stylised representation of the battles, and of other socio-political rituals, is simple yet extremely effective. The pacing, rhythm and flow is spot on.

Coriolanus is riddled with questions of social justice, personal integrity, communal responsibility, the use and abuse of power … and as played out by The Bacchanals, it is gripping, provocative and profoundly insightful.

This deceptively simple and riveting production of a rarely produced yet very relevant play is highly recommended. 
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
 Michael Wray