Walking in on the rehearsals of Coriolanus, directed by Lucy Clarke, I found it hard to believe that the cast still had a week and a half to go before the performance. We don’t often actually appreciate how hard it is for Oxford students to find time in the week, already full to the brim with essays, to cram play rehearsals into, and how important each and every week is in the development of plays at Oxford. And yet, each actor was already so confident in their character and in what they were doing; and I’m not just talking about being off-book – each actor knew and felt their character completely. Which, with a play as difficult to get to grips with as Coriolanus is, is a real feat. It is clear that this is a production is in the hands of a director that very much knows the play, very much knows what she’s doing and makes sure her actors do too.
I might have scared you off now by telling you what a difficult play this is to tackle, but Instruments of Darkness Productions are sure to blow you away with a very sharp and clear vision of Coriolanus. The play’s been stripped down to its “brutish” core, shrinking in size by 1000 lines through cuts, allowing for Clarke to focus on the political corruption and self-interested ruling class of Ancient Rome. Coriolanus’s society is one in which the people are not spoken for, in which they “give [their] voices” and support to those they elect to power, only to be shown monstrous ingratitude, indifference and even contempt by their leaders. The production’s take on this society’s stagnancy and violation of democracy is one that Clarke promises will resonate with audience members as current politics in England (the ceaseless and brutal cutting of benefits, of the NHS etc., despite mass protest) demonstrates not much has changed.
“You have not loved the common people”, “if we give you anything, we hope to gain by you” protest the plebeians. But Coriolanus claims he is not “common” in his love.
Much of what has been cut also has a lot to do with Coriolanus himself. There’s none of him being popular with the people in this production – here he is brutal, hyper-masculine, obsessed with his own virtue and honour, traits which he sees as purely masculine, gained and developed through military service and bravery alone. When asking Will Taylor what the hardest part of playing a character already so unsympathetic, made more unsympathetic through his interpretation, he said: reconciling the intense hatred towards almost everyone deeply ingrained in his character together with the sensitivity and love he has for his family. However, this was not in the least bit evident as an issue: Taylor’s physicality brings to the surface the complex psychology of the role, with every move, every facial expression- not even that- with every twitch in his face so precisely capturing the character.
Given Coriolanus’s intense masculinity, it is inspired that much of the cast, most of the plebeians, and not to mention Coriolanus’s nemesis, Aufidius, leader of the Volscians, are female; each one of the women in the mob is imposing, unafraid to shout out for her right and her voice; while Annie Hayter (in the role of Aufidius) is sure to chill you with her dark stage prowess. Imagine the excitement I felt witnessing all these empowering female performances before even getting onto Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother and one of the most powerful female roles in Shakespeare, played here by Victoria Gawlik. Gawlik wiped the floor clean with her character’s infamous monologue in Act V Scene iii, her voice cracking, rising, booming, falling in such a way that keeps you at the edge of your seat – intense, and beautiful, she really captured the rhythms of Shakespeare’s lyrical language.
This promises to be a captivating and gripping performance, giving real insight into one of Shakespeare’s most politicized plays, in the wild outdoors of Regent Park’s quad. Don’t miss it
Image // Suzannah King