By Melissa Tutesigensi
Coriolanus charts the story of a soldier’s move from heroic vindicator to outcast. A narrative that shows how easily public dissent can destroy a ruler, it has all the high marks of a Shakespearean political tragedy. This play has been adapted countless times in stage and in film. Hill College Theatre Company (HCTC) offered a minimalist yet physical take on the play, with high concentration on the movement of the actors and the dialogue itself to carry the performance. Whilst highly original in its adaptation, the famous narrative of Coriolanus, its masterful dialogue, and the moral complexity of characters endures throughout the production.
The most notable and well executed directorial choice was the use of reverse gender roles. Here we saw Susannah Slevin portray Coriolanus, Dixi Taylor as Aufidius, and Wilf Wort as Volumnia. The poignancy of this was that the actors were free from being pigeonholed into traditional characters based on their gender in a way that did not distort the play. This meant that a male character was allowed to display outbreaks of emotion as seen in the outbursts and lamentations of Volumnia as Coriolanus becomes more hostile to those who she is meant to love and care for. Similarly a female character was allowed to retain some opacity and steeliness as seen in Aufidius’ thirst for revenge over Coriolanus. This performance made the audience themselves free from attaching character tropes to particular genders. It brought Shakespeare into a truly contemporary setting where women are allowed to be soldiers and hold high political positions and men are allowed to be sensitive and expressive.
The use of live drums accompanied by a hip-hop soundtrack during the fight scenes was very effective. Although much of the high moments of tension were carried through by the performances of the actors, the music enriched the scenes, set the mood and suited the nature of this dark, tense play. It provided a suitable backing to the active and physical scenes, though some of the dialogue was drowned out in the action.
One element of the production that didn’t quite fit however was the costume. As the production had made such a leap in reversing the gender roles as well as introducing contemporary music, the Roman garments seemed awkward at times and ill-fitting. A modernisation of costume would have released the play from the Roman context and allowed it to be non- era specific, a final barrier to situating it closer to now.
Nonetheless the energy of the all of the actors, the principles as well as the ensemble was exuberant. On stage as well as off, each maintained the tension and focus that is important in such a minimalist production. The transition of each scene change was rustic and broken up but it was this very atmosphere that played to the hand of the script and narrative. You don’t expect to see a highly technical musical with complex special effects and lighting, but rather the dexterity and control in the movement and the performance of the actors, which HCTC had to spare.
This production of Coriolanus is more than worth seeing for both those who are and are not familiar with the play. It is Shakespeare dragged through a few centuries, polished down and performed superbly by a talented cast.
Coriolanus is on until Sat 23 January at The Assembly Rooms Theatre, Durham. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Max Luan