Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

What expectation Shakespeare must have created in 1607, writing Coriolanus on the tail of King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra in the previous year! Sadly, set against that sublime benchmark the play disappoints with a narrower and less poetic focus and limited character development.

And sadly too this modern dress production, does not fully realise what is there: a fascination with the nature of good government against the background of Coriolanus’ inevitable self-destruction.

The politics always seem internationally relevant, with an establishment that has lost touch with the masses, and powerful individuals playing both sides for their own ends.

It is set 2,500 years ago in the early days of the Roman republic. Coriolanus has been raised by his ambitious widowed mother to prize military honour beyond personal gain and public concern.

Arrogant, blinkered, obsessed with being true to his warrior code, and contemptuous of his social inferiors, we first meet him insulting starving rioters, protesting senator’s control of the price and supply of corn. The people are given new powers via two tribunes, but war now intervenes with the menace of the Volsci from the neighbouring state.

Coriolanus, a fearsome fight machine, is soon covered in blood, honour and gratitude for victory.  Appointed to the high office of consul, he needs to show humility to win the ratification of the common people. The tribunes however incite his pride and the mob, and he is banished. Incensed by their ingratitude he seeks revenge by making common cause with the Volscians. Seemingly implacable to entreaties from besieged Rome, he finally gives way to his mother’s plea, makes peace and is murdered by his angry former allies.

Director Andrew Jackson rattles through this straightforward but lengthy plot, slowing as consequences come home to roost, but without gathering more momentum. The whole left me feeling largely detached and unmoved.

As Coriolanus, Sope Dirisu contributes telling physical presence and short tempered menace, whilst his relationship with his mother Volumnia is out of Sigmund Freud. Yet the ferocity of his deluded self-belief, his willingness to self-sacrifice and engrained inability to compromise are not fully conveyed. Despite a performance from Haydn Gwynne as Volumnia brim full of the unremitting male pride that shaped her son, down to tendency to physically intimidate those that disagree.

As the Volsci leader and Coriolanus’ bête noir James Corrigan expressively demonstrates understanding of political necessities, but also a weakness derived from his homo-erotic, love-hate worship of the Roman.

The power of the mob, of stirred up unreason given horrific power, comes potently through to tap long buried folk memories. Perhaps comparatively, trolls on the internet are a light price to pay.

There are no answers here to how political fairness can be achieved set against the frailty of human nature, but like many another production, this is a noble failure    ★★★☆☆   Derek Briggs   6th October 2017