Simon Fearn talks to the cast and crew of Hill College Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Coriolanus.
When asked to name your favourite Shakespeare play, the chances are it’s not going to be Coriolanus. Which is odd, really, considering its full-on action, political machinations and moral ambiguity. Hill College Theatre Company (HCTC) are bringing us a rather different interpretation of the late Shakespearean masterpiece—both Coriolanus and Aufidius are to be played by and as women, with a hip-hop soundtrack and minimalist staging.
Coriolanus is the tale of ambitious soldier Caius Martius, who returns from a fierce battle with the Volsces to more or less universal acclaim, before being christened Coriolanus and unceremoniously catapulted into a position of political authority which he is horrifically unsuited for. Amongst the production team, there is fierce debate about just how much sympathy the audience is meant to have for our arrogant protagonist. “I think he’s a right dick,” is the concise judgement of co-director Ollie Tallis. “You are so wrong! I love Coriolanus!” retorts Beth Beaden, also co-directing. “He’s got public speaking anxiety, and he’s always proud, but he’s got a reason to be proud!” She may speak of Coriolanus like he’s a particularly endearing child, but Beaden eventually concedes that it could go both ways. “If you play it in a certain way, or a different way,” she admits, “you have completely different characters.”
“We’ve tailored it down, made it a little more minimalist, and focused on the more famous pieces of fighting and physicality,” explains Tallis. Their set is limited to some black blocks and the changes of scene are signalled by the lighting (“Red is associated with the Romans and black with the Volsces,” producer Stephanie Young explains). All are agreed that stripping back the spectacle is a huge asset. “It’s a lot more personal,” Dixy Taylor (Aufidius) tells me. “I watched the Ralph Fiennes film version and the personal relationship that Coriolanus and Aufidius have got lost amongst the testosterone and fighting.”
Speaking of testosterone, this production should have significantly less than the average dose of hot-blooded masculinity served up in traditional performances. Both protagonist and antagonist are now female. “Gender blind casting is something that people don’t even consider,” complains Beaden. “They look at the part and it’s a man, so they cast a man. For a lot of the parts, it does not make a difference.” The whole team have stressed that Coriolanus’s sex change was not intended to drastically change the dynamics of the play, because as Tallis argues, “changing the gender just highlights the fact that people are people regardless, and they can play anything.”
For Taylor, it was refreshing to be free of the shackles of traditionally feminine roles—and show her more bloodthirsty side. “It’s nice to be given an opportunity as an actress in Durham to do some real sword fighting and some real physical stuff,” she says. “I feel like no one really does this swapping over of roles, and a lot of the plays have generic female and male roles.” Not only does it give our actresses some much-needed variety, but it shouldn’t really offend Shakespeare purists either. “The script is exactly the same,” insists Beaden, “the only thing we’ve done is cast it.” Or, as Tallis puts it, “we’ve changed a few pronouns, hope Shakespeare won’t mind!”
It’s not only the actresses who are playing against outdated gender norms, Wilf Wort is taking on the role of Coriolanus’s overbearing and slightly scary mother Volumnia. “I think it’s quite interesting seeing a man lose it around women” reflects Young. “Women in Shakespeare, Ophelia for instance, are normally portrayed as emotional and crazy. Wilf plays it angry and slightly unhinged, and it’s really nice to see soldier women, and then see this guy on stage actually lose it and be the one that’s uncontrolled.”
All in all, it looks like HCTC’s take on the Bard will be both unthreateningly faithful yet agreeably modern, and shake off some of the aspects of Shakespeare that are anachronous with modern theatre. Tallis, when asked to summarise the production’s appeal, makes a convincing case. “It’s all action, whether that be emotional or physical,” he says. “It’s coming at you hard and fast all the way through. There aren’t any scenes that you can go to sleep in or calm down on. You’ll have Wilf letting himself loose and doing some kind of crazy thing; you’ll have the ensemble members dying in the aisles around you. You can’t chill out; it’s just all action!”
Photograph: Grace Tseng