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Caius Martius's bull-headed pursuit of military glory and frenzied defence of his own extraordinarily developed sense of personal honour sit oddly in modern London.

Theater Review: Coriolanus at Shakespeare’s Globe

Shakespeare’s Caius Martius Coriolanus is a difficult character for most modern western audiences. He might go down rather well on a US Marine base in Iraq, but his bull-headed pursuit of military glory and frenzied defence of his own extraordinarily developed sense of personal honour sit rather oddly in modern London. The Jacobean audience might have seen nobility, if of a flawed kind; we see only dangerous, self-regarding ego.

Coriolanus is thus a huge challenge for the first production of the new director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole. When the first night crowd applauded as the gates of the city closed on Rome’s expelled military hero in Act Four, I wondered if Dromgoole was up to the challenge.

Up to this point Jonathan Cake’s military hero is all dash, muscle and buzzing charisma. Even his words can scarcely keep up with him; too many are lost in the rushing air. On the odd moment he is standing still, his petulant jutting jaw and tantrum-stamping feet are too reminiscent of a three-year-old to be taken seriously as a national figure, even of the most Homeric type.

Sympathy, as reflected in the applause, rests with the plebian forces driving him from Rome in response to his would-be-tyrannical scorn, even though Shakespeare clearly means even an audience like this to have no sympathy with the two unctuous tribunes (Frank McCusker as Sicinius Velutus and John Dougall as Junius Brutus) orchestrating their revolt.

In the second act, however, Cake slows down, and Coriolanus develops into a figure of some depth, some feeling. In this newly opened space, other characters also flower, from his driven mother Volumnia (a virtuoso performance from Margot Leicester) to Robin Soans’ well-meaning but limited patrician Menenius Agrippa, who just wants to be friends with everyone and enjoy peace and a comfortable life.

At this new, more comfortable, pace the words — both comic and tragic — are given their proper weight, and inspiration takes over from perspiration as the driving force of the production. The juxtaposition of opposite characters, the warrior Coriolanus and the man of peace Menenius, the unfulfilled, driven Volumnia and the loving , gentle wife Virgilia (Jane Murphy) is allowed to settle and take shape on the stage.

The balance between drama and light relief also develops in the second half of the play after the military derring-do of the first; the encounter between the buffoonish serving men of the Volscian general Tullus Audifius (Mo Sesay) and the disguised Coriolanus is one of those little gems of entertainment balanced by the tension of an audience that knows far more than the characters on stage that Shakespeare constructed so well.

The production bears all the hallmarks of the Globe’s meticulous research standards. It is performed in Jacobean costume, and with period-style instruments and music. Anyone who’s seen the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery will find it familiar, from the detailed drawing by Henry Peacham of a 1594 production of Titus Andronicus . There’s something too, in the gestures of the modern players, particularly Leicester, that echoes that delightfully evocative sketch (which is reproduced in the Globe programme.)

Dromgoogle seeks, as the Globe seems to have been doing for many years, to draw in a modern audience into the same kind of emotional and even practical involvement that came naturally to the groundlings in the original Globe. Even the institution of twisting ramps through the standing crowd, and scattering Roman’s restive citizens through them, fails to get the kind of engagement sought, however. Instead, the uncomfortable shifting of a modern dress spectator who suddenly finds a peasant-ish figure, complete with cudgel, pushing past him, is merely distracting.

It is easy to see with a play like Coriolanus how a director might be tempted to go to extraordinary lengths to try to multiply his or her crowd 100-fold; I’m just not sure what it would take to overcome modern politeness. Compulsory pints of mead beforehand to reduce the inhibitions perhaps?

But even without a co-operative cast of hundreds, this is a production that finally — a little more slowly than one would wish — but definitively, grabs the emotional sinews of the audience and refuses to let go. There is style, panache, and a superb sense of timing here (particularly notable in the hero’s pathetic death at the hands of Audifius’s thuggish, cowardly henchmen – which is played for exactly, precisely the right length). I’m already looking forward to the opening of Dromgoole’s Titus Andronicus later this month.

The production, which opened last night, will continue until August 13, in rep with Titus Andronicus and (later) Anthony and Cleopatra.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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