Year of Shakespeare: Coriolan/usAdaptationTragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • Alun Thomas

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

Coriolan/us, National Theatre Wales and Royal Shakespeare Company, Dir. Mike Pearson and Mike Brooks, 8 August 2012, at Hangar 858, RAF St Athan, Vale of Glamorgan, Wales.

By Alun Thomas, Cardiff University

This is going to be different. Coriolan/us, National Theatre Wales’ visionary blending of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus with Brecht’s Coriolan signals its departure from the norm from the very first. The play takes place in a hangar on an abandoned military installation in the middle of nowhere; the first thing the audience sees on arrival is a barbed wire fence covered with faded ‘dangerous substances’ signs. A pillbox guards the road, empty gun emplacements gaping. Beyond, the hangar squats with a strange air of menace, bleak, industrial and forbidding.

Headphones are provided, to be worn throughout the performance. As the audience mill around the huge hangar doors, waiting for the play to begin, they play subtly threatening, dark, ambient music, occasionally interrupted by a nasty metallic dragging noise which brings to mind a corpse being hauled through a garage. This sets up the mood of the play perfectly. It’s clear that Coriolan/us is going to be an experience as much as a play. Suddenly the doors creak, open slowly, and we walk into the darkness.

Fittingly, the play begins in uncertainty and doubt. Unsure at first of what we’re looking at, it soon becomes clear that we’re being filmed, the images broadcast from two enormous screens suspended from the roof. It seems that we’re as much a part of the performance as are the actors or the space. This discomforting, vulnerable and voyeuristic feeling persists throughout the play. The hangar doors clang as they shut, trapping us inside.

It’s difficult to tell at first if the frenzied beeping we can hear is a sound effect on the headphones. It only becomes apparent that it’s real when a van drives up, parting the audience like a sea as they move to make way for it. Then the First and Second Citizens leap out and address us directly, alternately haranguing and threatening. There’s a real air of menace as they brandish baseball bats inches away from us, their lank, greasy hair and unwashed clothes emitting a noxious smell. The audience is repulsed and intrigued, draws near and moves away. They surge and ebb throughout the performance, free to move around the hangar as they wish. This leads to fascinating moments which question the relationship between spectator and performer as the audience become a vital part of the action. This is particularly visible when Richard Lynch’s imposing Coriolanus strides into the crowd. He shoulders his way through the audience, sending a few people scurrying away from him as he barges into them. When he excoriates the Roman citizens he directly addresses the spectators, spitting and bellowing as they back away from his rage.

Constant movement is a major element in Coriolan/us. The production always has more than one focus, and the audience is free to move between them. This works extremely well, particularly when Menenius begs Coriolanus not to destroy Rome. As his desperate pleas fall on deaf ears the screens show the terrified Romans preparing for invasion. The audience is divided, one half surrounding the car to hear the negotiations, the other half watching the silent fear of Coriolanus’ wife and mother through the windows of a caravan. The spectators become voyeurs, staring through windows, craning to overhear private conversations. The production confronts them with this fact: the action is filmed and broadcast live onto the screens and the audience is often caught in the background of shots. The effect is a disquieting one, as spectators craning through windows realise they can be seen by everyone and move away, only to be replaced by others.

This blurring of the boundaries is particularly visible during the battle scenes of the play. A breezeblock wall spans the breadth of the hangar, dividing Roman territory from that of the Volscians. As the audience spread out to witness the fighting, they separate, some in the Roman lines, some in the Volscian. Their shadowy presence in the dimly lit, smoky murk of the battle, simultaneously close to and fundamentally detached from the fighting, creates a strange, voyeuristic tension. This tension is increased by the presence of masked men brandishing bats, who walk silently among the crowd, gathering and dispersing at random as they wait for the attack to begin.

The most striking use of the spectators as part of the play occurs when Coriolanus stand on the wall, bellowing for all who love their country to follow him and attack the Volscians. His impassioned exhortations draw nothing but silence, as his friends and allies look away uncomfortably and the vast mass of the audience stares noiselessly at him. In that moment we become the fearful Roman army, repulsed by Coriolanus’ absurd level of bravery. His agonized, reproachful stare is directed squarely at us. We have betrayed him. Similarly, when the disgraced Coriolanus is driven from Rome, the audience gather behind him at the gates and watch him depart, playing the part of the Roman citizens who drive him out of the city and into the arms of the Volscians. When he returns, he returns to take revenge on us, and his mute, hateful glare through the car windows as he’s driven into Rome is directed at the audience, who earlier had joined in the clapping as he returned from war in triumph.

Blurring the boundaries between spectator and spectacle, Coriolan/us is a drama of disorientation. When the hangar doors open at the end of the play there’s a palpable sense of relief as the audience is freed from the grim industrial nightmare of a fallen and decaying Rome. Intense, confusing, frightening, the production fuses actors, text, space and audience together, creating a unique experience which will not soon be forgotten by those lucky enough to see it. 

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Alun Thomas

Author: Alun Thomas

Alun Thomas received his PhD from Cardiff University in 2012. His thesis studied the making and remaking of history in Shakespeare's history plays. Currently he lives and works in London. He is our Associate Editor for Wales.