Coriolan/us, directed by Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes for National Theatre Wales, Hangar 858, RAF St. Athan, Vale of Glamorgan, 15th August 2012.
By Harry Fox Davies
Hangar 858 at RAF St Athan on the coast of South Wales was both the theatre space and setting for Coriolan/us. Infused with Bertolt Brecht’s 1950s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, Coriolan, Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes’s ambitious venture was unusual not only for its setting and uncategorizable event status, but because it was so fully and overwhelming realized as a piece of “total theatre”. This was Shakespeare but not as you’ve seen it before. […]
The world of the play had much in common with the Arab Spring: politics played out in the market-place rather in the corridors of power and a revolution that will be televised — even if in grainy and unverifiable footage. Filming throughout, cameras sat on the shoulders of men amongst the crowd and relayed footage of the action to two large screens; meanwhile, cameras on wires overhead, helicopter-like, captured birds-eye shots.
It was around this landscape that we were free to roam […]. Melting and merging into this crowd were the Tribunes and Citizens, watching events too and whispering occasionally into their mobiles, apparently conspiring. […]
As we traversed the hangar, we could hear every word thanks to the wireless headphones provided. By miking the actors and putting their words directly into our ears, the full impact and force of Shakespeare’s verse was felt with an alarming clarity. Immersing us in the language, the intimacy that these headphones provided meant that in a space so cavernous the nuances of the cast’s uniformly and startlingly impressive performances were never lost.
Yet, whilst Pearson and Brookes’s production may have been immersive, equally our role as an audience remained unsettled as the technology — the shifting perspectives of the rolling coverage flickering overhead — worked to distance. Invariably the cameras took an alternative view to our own and more than once did I catch myself in shot as I glanced up at the screens. Like catching oneself in the mirror from an unfamiliar angle, I could see myself being a spectator. This was not a passive them-and-us dynamic; at play here was a tension between our roles as spectators and participants.
During the crowd scenes then we were part of the crowd, but when the play shifted to the private realm behind the closed doors of the emptied caravans that were used so effectively to create these private spaces, we peered through the windows at the family psychodrama like voyeurs. […]
I was first in line to gawp through the caravan windows as Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia (Rhian Morgan) scolds her son for being “too absolute”, entreating him like a boy to “return to th’tribunes”. Yet later when it came to Coriolanus and Aufidius’s (Richard Harrington) march on Rome and the conference in which Volumnia pleads for her son to relent, I felt I was standing too close. […] The emotional intensity on offer throughout was the kind that one might expect to find in a more intimate playing space not amidst a setting as stark and vast, as harsh and industrially cold as this.
Just as Coriolanus turns his back on Rome and reminds us defiantly that “there is a world elsewhere”, this production in Hangar 858 reminds us that there is a place for Shakespearean performance elsewhere: that there is a theatre for Shakespeare beyond the fixtures and fittings (material and/or artistic) of the conventional arena, whether this is a theatre that has state-of-the-art stage technologies like Stratford’s or a theatre that strives towards and imitates (fetishizes?) historical conditions or “original practices” at the Globe on South Bank. Neither of which can offer, as far as I’m concerned, the same in-and-amongst nearness, immediacy and urgency that came with Coriolan/us, which happened right there in front of us on the smooth concrete slabs. […]
Read Harry Fox Davies’s full-length (1080 words) review (with photos) in the forthcoming issue of Cahiers Élisabéthains 83 (Spring 2013), pages 36-37. http://recherche.univ-montp3.fr/cahiers/
Harry Fox Davies is a recent graduate of Goldsmiths, University of London. Interested in the theatre in relation to environmental issues, he is due to begin an MA with the Department of Geography at King’s College London.