Year of Shakespeare: CoriolanusFestivalsTragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • Adele Lee

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.


Coriolanus, Chiten Theatre Company, Dir. Motoi Miura, 21 May 2012 at The Globe, London

By Adele Lee, University of Greenwich

It might be assumed that a Japanese theatre company performing Coriolanus would transpose the action to Feudal Japan and turn the eponymous hero – a man who prefers action to words and is more comfortable on the battlefield than in the political realm – into a Samurai warrior. For, the connection between the warrior culture of Japan and the Rome of this play has been noted several times, and David Farr and Yukio Ninagawa have both directed highly-successful ‘Samurai versions’. Also, in an interview about his 2011 film version of this play, Ralph Fiennes claimed Coriolanus was a ‘sort of Samurai figure for me’, since ‘he is not equipped to be a political animal’.

Motoi Miura, regarded as one of Japan’s most imaginative theatre directors, did nothing so obvious or Japan-esque (thankfully), and his avant-garde, intercultural production defied easy classification. Rich in symbolism, the Kyoto-based company’s Coriolanus was, I found, bizarre in a Beckett-ian way and equally intriguing (incidentally, Miura’s book describing his dramaturgy is entitled Omoshirokereba OK? [Is just being interesting OK?]). This production featured a cast of just five, all of whom, with the notable exception of the tragic protagonist, played multiple, exchangeable roles and were known collectively as ‘Choros’. Coriolanus (Dai Ishida), then, really did stand out as being only able to ‘play the man I am’ (3.2.14) in a world of Machiavellian chameleons. The lumping together of all the other dramatis personae (which sadly led to the near-erasure of the fascinating Volumnia) suggested the Company concurred with Shakespeare’s/Coriolanus’s conception of the masses as being Hydra-like. But it wasn’t just the masses that lacked individuality: Chiten appeared to be claiming that the plebeians and patricians were likewise indistinguishable, thereby adopting – on the surface, at least – a politically ambivalent stance towards what is frequently considered Shakespeare’s most radical play.

For most of the performance, Coriolanus, dressed in denim dungarees, wore a large basket over his head. Most obviously, this was a sign of his reluctance to expose his ‘unbarbèd sconce’ (3.2.99) and indicative of his need to hide his weakness and vulnerability from the crowd, both onstage and off. The basket, which revealed Tadashi Suzuki’s influence on Miura (the former’s ground-breaking Tale of Lear [1988] inspired the latter to pursue a career in theatre), also visually conveyed the opaque nature of this character, who is granted only a single short soliloquy in the original. Additionally, it communicated his short-sightedness; his inability to form a rapport with the people; and his juvenile, emotionally-stunted personality. Indeed, throughout the play it was clear the warrior hero was being ridiculed as a manifestation of an outdated, childish concept of masculinity, and equally clear that war was viewed as the outcome of placing too much power in the hands of men who hadn’t fully grown up. The amusing use of a frying pan, a puddle smacker and party horns as instruments further implied that there is little difference between men at war and kids at play. A violin was played following Coriolanus’s death at the close of the performance to herald the beginning of a new, more mature historical moment – though shot through with nostalgia.

Coriolanus’s vocalisation, likewise, betrayed that he lacked the ability to charm or manipulate the people as he often delivered his lines, beneath the basket, in a fast, robotic manner (he moved ‘like an engine’ [5.4.16] too). Occasionally, however, and to great effect, Dai Ishida’s voice would rise and fall quite suddenly as well as acquiring a startling sing-song quality, which highlighted, along with the use of masks and the ‘art of stillness’, the influence of traditional Japanese theatre like Nōh and Kabuki on the production. Through sound and movement, as well as physical appearance, the director fulfilled his stated goal of ‘bring[ing] to the stage a reconstructed embodiment of the artistic world created by the original playwright’. Miura, like Coriolanus, is plainly a man who prefers action to words. This was expressive theatre at its finest.

The use of baguettes (popularly conceived to have been invented by Napoleon during his Russian campaign as bread that could be carried down troops’ trouser legs) as props was another notable facet of this production. All cast members brandished the baguettes as weapons while their constant consumption of the bread reflected not just greed, but the destruction and emasculation of Coriolanus (the baguette can be, after all, a phallic symbol). Given, too, the Biblical association of bread with the body, the baguettes were related to the body-politic metaphor that is central to the play, and to Menenius’s fable of the belly from the opening scene. The destruction of the baguette also reflected the source material’s imagining of the human body in negative terms – as starving, wounded, and cut to pieces. Once again, Miura, similar to Edward Bond in Lear (1971) in this respect, managed to concretise the motifs suggested by Shakespeare’s language and imagery.

This is perhaps most strikingly shown by Aufidius’s passionate clasping of the dead Coriolanus’s body, with which he rolls around the stage, in the final scene which made (perhaps too) explicit the oft commented-upon homoerotic nature of these two military leaders’ relationship. Furthermore, the shocking suggestion of necrophilia was an appropriate way to close a tragedy that associates pleasure with pain (Coriolanus delighted in pouring molten wax from a red candle over his outstretched hand), and martial combat with sex.

Overall, this was a fascinating take on Shakespeare’s last Roman play and the Chiten Theatre Company, under the expert directorship of the visionary Miura, did an outstanding job of offering a fresh interpretation of the play, a take that emphasised the sometimes-overlooked importance of movement, sound and the body in theatre. Indeed, these are the aspects of performance that we are forced to appreciate in all the Festival’s non-English productions.

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Adele Lee

Author: Adele Lee

Adele Lee completed a PhD at the Queen's University, Belfast, in 2009 and now teaches English Literature at the University of Greenwich, London. Her research interests are Shakespeare on film, Renaissance travel writing, and cross-cultural exchanges between England and the Far East. She is the Secretary of the Literary London Society and Associate Editor of City Journal.