Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Company

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By Andrew Brown, Yale University

Blog Post 2: Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Blog2_Coriolanus

Andrew Brown is a Ph.D. student at Yale and was one of the recipients of a Sir Stanley Wells Shakespeare Studentship, via the American Friends of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The award meant he could work in the archives and libraries in Stratford-upon-Avon for just under four weeks.

 

The 2017 season of the Royal Shakespeare Company has been collectively titled “ROME MMXVII,” with promotional materials posted across Stratford-upon-Avon boldly proclaiming that “all roads lead to Rome”. Indeed, even productions of non-Shakespearean works like Phil Porter’s Vice Versa, Robert Harris’ “Cicero trilogy,” and Oscar Wilde’s Salome explicitly call attention to their connections to the Roman world. In this environment, lines such as Herod’s repeated references to the power of Caesar in Salome draw heightened force from audience members’ awareness of concurrent performances of Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra taking place in the adjacent Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

One area of my current research focuses on Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and while my Studentship at the Shakespeare Centre will unfortunately have come to an end before that play debuts on 15 September, the Trust’s archives offer ample opportunities to consider the RSC’s prior engagements both with this play and with the complex significance of Rome and Romanitas more generally. Since the late nineteenth century, the RSC has staged Coriolanus with some regularity (though with a notable lacuna during the 1980s). But one of the most interesting recent productions is that directed by John Barton in 1967, for which the Trust holds a wide range of archival documents.

Arriving on the heels of the influential 1965 London production of Bertolt Brecht’s version of Coriolanus by the Berliner Ensemble, Barton’s revival borrowed significant elements of that performance’s stripped-down aesthetic while also minimizing or evading some of the political emphasis on class conflict and military authoritarianism that Brecht characteristically sought to underscore. The Shakespeare scholar John Ripley, in his Coriolanus on Stage in England and America, 1609-1994, argues that Barton’s production relied not on “textual manipulation” but rather on “stagecraft and actorial ingenuity” (314-15) in order to achieve its aims, but a closer look at the altered playtext used as the basis for the script reveals how even subtle textual changes can support a markedly different interpretation of the work.

In the play’s first scene, a group of famished Roman citizens confronts the patrician Menenius, who attempts to talk them out of their stated goal of demanding corn “at [their] own price” (1.1.9-10)—and of killing the soldier Martius (later known as Coriolanus), who they claim is their inveterate enemy. The RSC script displays a number of minor cuts in Menenius’ speeches in this scene, including his insult of one citizen as a “rascal” and his comment that the plebeians should “make you ready your stiff bats and clubs” (1.1.160) as Martius enters to oppose them. The cumulative effect of such changes is to depict the citizens not as a fearsome mob or ragtag army, but rather as a group of genuinely starving petitioners; this interpretation is reinforced by production notes for the scene’s props and staging, which observe that most of them should carry not the weapons mentioned by Menenius but rather shallow “panniers” with bread crusts and scattered earns of corn.

Another annotated staging photograph wryly describes this scene’s general atmosphere as “Covent Garden at dawn,” emblematized by “broken boxes” and “cabbage leaves” strewn across the stage. And this attempt to connect the play to audiences’ modern-day experiences (in a production that otherwise conformed to period dress conventions) may suggest the pervasive influence of Brecht’s effort to highlight the play’s relevance to contemporary political and economic tensions. At a moment when the RSC’s 2017 production of the Roman plays (particularly Titus Andronicus) are engaging with issues of state violence, austerity, and celebrity, returning to the company’s archives provides a unique perspective on this longer history of politicized Shakespeare.

 

Sources:

Ripley, John. Coriolanus on Stage in England and America, 1609-1994 (London: Associated University Presses, 1998).

Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus, ed. Peter Holland (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2013).

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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