Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes, the innovative director duo behind National Theatre Wales’ acclaimed play The Persians, have teamed up once again on a re-imagining of the tragedy Coriolanus for the World Shakespeare Festival 2012.
Fused with Brecht’s 1950’s adaptation, Coriolan/us transplants the eponymous fallen hero’s story from ancient Roman to a vast and disused RAF hangar in South Wales. The choice of this stark military setting for the site specific piece is an effective one, as the play’s main themes and scenes centre around war and its aftermath.
Once inside the space you are faced with two imposing television screens and multiple cameras . This adds to the feeling the world you have entered is one of 24 hour news and constant surveillance. The audience is given headphones that can be worn throughout, meaning you are completely immersed in the action and the characters’ dialogue.
Burnt out cars, men in balaclavas and a great wall dividing the two cities of the play induce menace, and serve to remind us this is a place on the edge of chaos and revolt. Coriolan/us succeeds in being both claustrophobic and epic in scale simultaneously. Adrenaline filled riots quickly transform into intimate scenes.
A fascinating feature of the production is that it will be experienced differently by each audience member. You can choose whether to follow the actors, the crowd’s movements, or to transfix your gaze on the giant screens in the hangar.
By live streaming the performances onto screens via roving cameras, a powerful sense of being part of a news story as is develops is created. At times it feels like you are actually one of the people in the crowd as history is being made during the uprisings. One the Citizens films moments on his mobile phone. The experience is immersive and authentic. The patricians jostle and push past you as if they are not an actor and you the audience, but as if you really are one of the plebeians of Rome.
The underlying force of the play lies in the crowds. Almost ever present, they drive the narrative forward to its tragic conclusion. It is interesting that the audience and crowd of play become one entity, and I found myself following the masses and thronging towards the action, engrossed.
This production is enhanced by a strong cast. The Civilian “plebs” command the vast space of Hangar 858 just as forcefully as the soldiers, Tribunes, and Coriolanus’s indomitable mother Volumnia (a memorable Rhian Morgan).
The tension and chemistry between enemies-turned-allies Coriolanus and Aufidius (Richard Lynch and Richard Harrington respectively) is mesmerising to watch. Hatred bleeds into admiration then blurs into a seemingly homoerotic lust between these two hardened soldiers. This climaxes in a final battle that feels almost like a release of the sexual tension that seemed to build between them throughout.
Shakespeare’s story is remarkably pertinent. The experiences of a wounded soldier returning home from war and struggling to adjust to the way life when he returns could have been written specially for a contemporary audience. Civilian life in Rome is a battleground, and the political landscape there is more of a minefield than the conflicts Coriolanus has left behind.
Parallels to the Arab Spring are unmistakable. Walking into the hangar feels like stepping into the streets of Syria mid riot. This tale of citizens joining together and rising up against their rulers, even if it does bring disastrous consequences, has captured the zeitgeist.
Coriolan/us is a thought-provoking reminder in these unstable times that “the people are the city”. We have the power to better our world, but also to destroy it.