New theatre company Heartstring present William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. As part of their brief to create more roles for women, this tale of warfare, political manoeuvring and revenge in the time of ancient Rome has an all-female cast. This is a solid outing with mostly good performances. It may better suit those conversant with The Bard, rather than the masses as he originally intended.
Coriolanus is a dramatized account of the life of historical figure Caius Martius Coriolanus. One of Shakespeare’s last tragedies, and considered one of his best (according to the programme), it fell from popular favour in the 20th century. Heartstring give us the uncommon chance to see it performed.
Caius Martius (Elisa Armstrong) is Roman soldier. He … err… she earns the title Coriolanus for valour in the battle of Corioli against the neighbouring Volscians, led by Tellus Aufidius (Joanne Booth). Influential admirers Patrician Menenius (Catherine Glavicic) and General Cominius (Sarah Nicolazzo) pressure the new hero to enter the Senate. Coriolanus – often critical of the common folk – reluctantly agrees.
Representatives of the commoners, Tribunes Brutus (Alys Daroy) and Sicinius (Sonia Marcon), stir up resentment. In order to become acceptable to the people, Coriolanus must conceal her growing disdain. However, tragedy stalks those unable or unwilling to moderate the excesses of their nature.
Often such a tragic character has opportunity to reappraise their situation and change their course. As an audience, we need to know them well enough to understand why they cannot compromise, even when this is against their own interests. This exposition is not always sharply presented, with the unfortunate result that the tragedy of this Coriolanus is not fully developed.
Whilst sometimes this is due to diction, it seems largely due to some of the production choices made. The running time was around 1 hour and 50 minutes with no interval. Dialogue was delivered in such a rapid-fire manner that at times I was unable to appreciate the nuance of the text. I suspect that those only casually acquainted with Shakespearean language will find many passages a blur at this speed.
Having started on this thought, a quick Google search showed that a Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus ran for 2 hours 40 minutes, and one by the Royal Shakespeare Company for 2:55, and both had intervals! This makes me wonder about the merits of choosing to perform Coriolanus in under two hours.
The approach to casting could give theatre goers much cause for discussion. The programme anticipated that the gender-flip in Coriolanus would result in “the most pronounced and intriguing transformation”. All characters except Coriolanus are presented very obviously as women, some with hairstyles very impractical for the battlefield. As the play Coriolanus is based on history, this production seems to encourage us to accept a counterfactual account of the Roman military.
Maybe I could go along with this thought-experiment, except that Coriolanus seems to undermine this. With her loose garments and tightly tied back hair, Armstrong achieves an androgynous presence that contrasts with the rest of the cast. She embodies a traditional masculine aggression, yet, brings nuance to the role. When an emotional appeal is made to curb her vengeance, she softens her face to admit just a hint of feminine vulnerability under a macho exterior.
The “twinning” of the roles of Coriolanus’ wife (Virgilia) and mortal enemy (Aufidius) of Coriolanus could have been quite interesting. If there is any intended synergy here, it went by me, possibly a casualty of one of those speedy passages. Still, Booth’s Aufidius is suitably venomous towards Coriolanus, and scheming as allegiances change.
Glavicic recognises the potential of her Menenius, self-described as “a humorous patrician, and one that loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying Tiber”. By having the patrician take a more relaxed manner when out of the public eye, she wrung comedic opportunity from the role.
Nicolazzo, with lipstick and ponytail, mostly maintains the stoicism you might expect from a military general. However, I found how it collapsed into utter helplessness under pressure somewhat troubling. It seemed to show the stereotype of a character of feminine appearance feeling powerless before the will of the most masculine one. It is this type of scene that made my efforts to discern some significant insight from the gender-flip feel like trying to extract a weak signal from noise.
As Coriolanus’ supporter and antagonist mother Volumnia, Janet Watson Kruse showed a good understanding of language and rhythm. There were capable performances across the rest of the ensemble. The direction found subtle and effective ways of shuttling Jessica Tanner and Ingrid Taylor-Moss between various supporting roles.
This is an honourable attempt to present a somewhat obscure work in this 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death. Heartstring deserve praise for their efforts in raising awareness of the limited opportunities for women actors, and doing something to redress this state of affairs.
Director: Grant Watson Featuring: Elisa Armstrong, Joanne Booth, Catherine Glavicic, Janet Watson Kruse, Sonia Marcon, Alys Daroy, Sarah Nicolazzo, Tammy Weller, Ingrid Taylor-Moss, Jessica Tanner Set and Costume Design: Laura Pearse Lighting Design: Kris Chainey Sound Design: Ben Keene Stage Manager Amber Bock
Mechanics Institute, 270 Sydney Road, Brunswick
Performance: Thursday 28 April 2016
Season continues to 8 May 2016
Bookings: (03) 9387 3376 or online at: www.metanoiatheatre.com
For more information, visit: www.weareheartstring.com for details.
Image: Elisa Armstrong and Sarah Nicolazzo in Coriolanus – photo by Angel – 3 Fates Media
Review: Jason Whyte