The Worcester College Gardens production of Coriolanus is a passionate and aggressive adaptation, one of Shakespeare’s final Roman tragedies. Despite being the second longest play in Shakespeare’s collected works, the production demands the constant and acute attention of its audience. With numerous intense performances from a range of superb lead actors and boasting several dynamic fight sequences, (which appear to be quickly becoming a staple of the Oxford Drama summer season) the play feels like a bombardment of the senses.
This intensely political and violent tragedy follows the ongoing turmoil endured by Roman soldier and Patrician, Caius Martius, as he is forced to counter not only the animosity of the famine stricken citizens of Rome but also the antagonistic advances of his Volscian rival, Aufidius (both parts played on alternate nights by Laurence Belcher and Tom Fisher). After returning from war in Corioles, having overthrown the Volscian army almost single-handedly, the numerous tribunes that form the Roman Senate award him with the title ‘Coriolanus’ and urge him to utilise his newfound heroic status to run for consul. Fearing that Martius’ election might result in their loss of status, two tribunes within the Senate, Sicinus (Maddy Webb) and Brutus (Ben Turvill), evoke more riotous behaviour from the Roman citizens such that Martius is banished from the city to seek refuge with Aufidius in Corioles. Forming an alliance, together they lead an army to Rome, which is left severely exposed but for the consolatory pleas of Martis’ friend, Menenius (Ariel Levine) and his mother, Volumnia (Libby Taylor).
I cannot honestly comment on the decision of the director, Lisa Friedrich, to alternate the actors playing Martius and Aufidius, as I am guilty of denying myself the true effect of this direction by only seeing Belcher in the role as Martius and Fisher as Aufidius. However, observing the minute complexities which these two actors bring to their characters whenever performing opposite one another, it is evident that their relationship has been intentionally examined by Friedrich and subsequently brought into the foreground as one of the most commendable aspects of this adaptation. When Belcher first appears as Martius, he is arrogant and brash, scorning the Roman citizens and the cowardly soldiers supporting his attack on Corioles. Alternately, Fisher presents the audience with a rationale and collected Aufidius, whose authority extends from his repose. When the characters are first together in the play, however, reuniting after previous conflicts, both actors appear appalled yet almost aroused by the company of the other. Whereas Belcher’s arrogance replaced with abhorrence, there is undoubtedly an edge of titillation or even coy invitation; likewise, although Fisher is near dripping with venom, his anger seems underpinned by a devious pleasure. Needless to say, both these lead actors are captivating, however despite Belcher taking the lead on the evening I saw the play, ultimately it is poison with which Fisher seems to have coated his every word which steals the audience’s gaze and perplexing attraction. Even when Aufidius forgives Martius, welcoming him into his home, Fisher maintains an undeniable tone of spite which is joyous to behold.
Notwithstanding the allure of the intimately hateful relationship which Belcher and Fisher present, I can confidently say the most diverse and enjoyable performance comes from Levine as Menenius. Within moments of his first entrance, interrupting the rabble of the citizens gathered on stage, his wryly confidence smooths over his patronising tone, allowing Levine to belittle and placate the citizens while usurping the affections of the audience. The fluidity of Levine’s emotionality, drifting with ease from his sanctimonious derision directed to Webb and Turvill’s tribunes to his charming accommodation of Taylor’s Volumnia and Martia’s family, is utterly brilliant, exposing the character’s true deceitfulness while nevertheless managing to sustain the admiration of the audience. Another wonderful performance, which at times even seems to dwarf Belcher’s passionate outbursts of fury, is given by Bill Freeman as the Roman general, Cominius. I cannot commend Freeman enough for his diction; spending much of his time rooted, making only brief and subtle gestures when necessary, Freeman launches his voice from the stage, commanding citizens, soldiers and the audience to his attention.
As is often the case with Shakespeare, the proximity of so many vibrant and complicated lead characters can result in the overshadowing of the lesser characters, or even some of the smaller yet equally pivotal roles. To some extent this is the case with Webb’s Sicinius and Turvill’s Brutus. Together, they consistently portray the sinister and sometimes near sadistic cruelty of the tribunes’ machinations; however, compared to the boisterous performances of Belcher and Freeman they seem a little muted, even when alone on stage. The stage presence which Belcher commands similarly seems to somewhat offset Taylor’s performance as Volumnia, as although she plays the mother of Belcher’s Martius, her doting feels less prideful and nurturing and more sexually charged. I must note that during the second act Taylor totally redeems this more unnerving aspect, as the explosiveness of her speeches asserts that sense of maternal authority.
The ensemble cast are for the most part strong and do well to support their principal actors, especially during some of the more physical scenes during which the violent rush and bustle of the citizens emphasises the social unease of Coriolanus’ Rome. However, unfortunately at times I feel it may be more effective for Friedrich to have limited the number of actors on her stage, for at times the layers of stationary actors crowded at either side seem to obscure the central characters. This leads to my principle complaint towards this particular viewing of Worcester College’s Garden Play: it was not performed in the garden. Unfortunately, due to the forecast weather the cast were forced into the Nazrin Shah Building to ensure maximum health and safety during the fight sequences. While this led to a rather lacklustre and assumedly last minute set of painted stage blocks and a metal barrier strewn with foliage, I must commend the inventive utilisation of the space for entrances and exits. Furthermore, the fight sequences themselves are perhaps the play’s greatest merit. Choreographed by Levine, the swordplay is dynamic and clean, displaying the combative skill of Martius in particular while still presenting the heaviness behind every swing, to maintain the fatal reality of each encounter. If removing the garden from the Garden Play is necessary to save the sword fights, then I think I can forgive Worcester on this occasion.
I am worried that I am doing a disservice to the apparent effort which the players of Worcester College have put into this production of Coriolanus. With the misfortune of the weather and the performance running parallel to the release of the General Election’s exit polls, I feel I may not have been alone in my slight distraction. With the results still foregrounded in my attention, however, I think I can appreciate the honesty of Coriolanus’ politics, overcoming social differences with impassioned speeches and bloodied steel, as opposed to the phlegmatic averments which may frequent modern politics.