Year of Shakespeare: Coriolan/us – Shakespeare & Brecht.

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National Theatre Wales (Co-produced by RSC)

Dir. Mike Pearson & Mike Brookes.
Hangar 858, RAF St. Athan, Vale of Glamorgan. 8-18th August 2012.

Review by Harry Fox Davies,
Goldsmiths, University of London.

At about twenty-five past seven on a cool midweek night in August I was part of a group of around three hundred people gathering in front an aircraft hangar on the south coast of Wales. Facing the large blue doors of the hangar we stood exposed to the strong breeze coming off the Bristol Channel and unified in an odd sort of way by the oversized black headphones we were all wearing.

We were there for Coriolan/us, the latest production from National Theatre Wales and directed by Mike Pearson and Mike Brookes. Infused with Bertolt Brecht’s 1950’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, Coriolan, Pearson and Brookes’s highly 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.

As the music playing in our headphones stepped up and our watches neared towards seven-thirty, the steel doors slid open and we passed through what I took to be the gates of Rome. Entering into an almost disappointingly vacant expanse, we were not given long to adjust to our surroundings before the headlights of a grey LDV van hit the back of our legs. Approaching us from behind and cutting through the crowd were the First and Second Citizens (John Rowley and Gerald Taylor), who, as political activists cum vigilantes with clubs, jumped from the van and worked themselves (and us) up against Richard Lynch’s Caius Martius (only later Coriolanus), ‘chief enemy to the people’. Suddenly we found ourselves part of a different sort of gathering.

Filming these two agitators, I noticed men with cameras amongst us and the huge screens that hung in the distance relayed footage of this gathering; meanwhile, cameras on wires over head, helicopter-like, captured birds-eye shots of the disturbance. The citizens, we heard, are hungry, the patricians are hoarding grain and the state ‘repeals daily any wholesome act established against the rich’. I began to wonder where we are and what kind of world we had entered; I wondered what sort of political landscape this was. This was a landscape with much in common to 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.

Hangar 858 at RAF St Athan was both the theatre space and setting for this production and what Brookes has described as ‘a landscape with a lid’. Although stark and uncompromisingly grey, the hangar was occupied by recognizable objects from the caravans to the cars; the industrial stand lamps to the orange plastic chairs. Coriolanus drives a Volvo, he wears a leather jacket and his club-brandishing soldiers invade Corioles in hoods and balaclavas. Absent were the desert fatigues or the non-committal Edwardian military jackets with shoulder pads and shiny buttons that we’re so used to seeing militarized Shakespeare dressed in. This felt improvised and immediate: a setting not lit by synthetic stage lights nor transplanted to an inevitably superficial but ‘well-designed’ and ‘well-dressed’ period or setting that rests itself self-consciously and aloof atop the well-trodden boards of our conventional theatres. The unselfconsciously dystopian aesthetic suggested a world where states are no longer run by politicians but by politicking gangsters.

It was around this landscape that we were free roam, and it was up to you to move; whilst some followed the crowd others splintered off from the main group and found their own way. Melting and merging into this crowd were the Tribunes and Citizens; watching events too and whispering occasionally into their mobiles – conspiring I supposed. But then there were moments when you found yourself alone either catching everyone else up or seeking a better view. Whereas one moment you where on the fringes of the action, the next you found yourself in the thick of it. To say that we were ‘promenading’ just doesn’t cover it.

As we traversed the hangar, the headphones we wore meant we heard every word. By miking the actors and putting their words directly into our ears the full impact and force of Shakespeare’s verse – surely some of the most explosive and sophisticated in the canon – was felt with a rare 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, as I and others have raved, 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 your 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 of a typical theatrical construction; at play here was a tension between our roles as spectators and participants.

When Coriolanus was forced to submit himself to the indignity of showing his wounds to the people, those of us standing near enough were encouraged to feel the wounds for ourselves just as the First and Second Citizens were doing. 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. These moments were unusual since so much of the play occurs in the public arena and even personal relationships – family business – are forced out into the public and/or political fora. Indeed, there is little privacy in Shakespeare’s Rome; for those who wield power, as James I wrote in 1599 in his Basilikon Doron, ‘all the people do gazingly behold’.

I was first in line to gawp through the caravan windows as Coriolanus’s 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.

This scene, devastating thanks to Morgan’s formidable and yet fragile Volumnia, took place in the middle of the hangar for ‘all the people’ to see. Standing in the dimmed headlights and joined by her son’s wife, Virgilia, Volumnia faced her son playing politics with the personal and personal with the politics. Only moments before had Coriolanus, with such a terrifyingly blank look in his eyes, told Menenius, ‘Wife, mother, child, I know not’, but breaking down after’s his mother’s tour-de-force Lynch cried, ‘O mother, mother!’ and wrapped his arms around her waist, returning himself to Rome.

In this ‘unnatural scene’, as Coriolanus calls it, the performances (so deeply felt by this outstanding cast) were upsetting and uncomfortable to watch. Encircled around this scene, which seemed to be taking place in a car park of some sort or an alternatively neutral location, we stood there as intruding spectators or – depending on where you were standing – as Volscian soldiers perhaps. Whichever, like Aufidius, we stood ‘moved withal.’

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. To steal a phrase the Royal Shakespeare Company (co-producers here, but with only a marketing and financial involvement) used to describe their new theatre as it opened two years ago, Pearson and Brookes’s production married together the ‘epic and the intimate…the personal and the huge’. This, we were told, was something the RSC’s new theatre would do and heralded as some sort a miracle compromise, we were told that their new theatre was ‘the best place to perform Shakespeare in the world’.

With Coriolan/us, Pearson and Brookes emphatically refute this grand claim. 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.

But absorbed as we may have been by the compelling personal and psychological realm, we were never allowed to forget where we were. It was difficult to ignore the space behind us and the landscape that we were part of. It was difficult not to notice the representatives of the political sphere lurking in the darkness figuratively breathing down our necks just as we were beginning to feel something like sympathy. Brecht’s presence, as you may have guessed by now, was felt more than just textually. Pearson and Brookes would appear to share Brecht’s insistence that the distancing effects must be deliberately combative and political. The very setup of Coriolan/us, made us feel the personal drama but feel it part of a wider political dimension. Less concerned with the tragic hero or the indispensable individual, this production seized the demands made by Shakespeare’s play, which as Pearson himself identifies in the programme note, is ‘ever challenging of our beliefs’ and ‘demanding of us that we think politically, again.’

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