An unstable leader at the helm. The threat of battle. Unhappy, rebellious citizens. Political turmoil. This is Rome during the Corioli wars, as shaped by the Bard himself, but of course it could very well be modern Britain. One feels the scheduling of Coriolanus at this year’s Cambridge Shakespeare Festival couldn’t have been more prescient and yet David Salter’s swift, punchy production never needs to overtly draw parallels between the two spheres, so present are they in the audience’s minds.
Anyone unfamiliar with this Roman epic should have no fear; the bulky text has been trimmed to a neat two hours and is as clear as they come: a headstrong, mother-obsessed warrior without a jot of political nous clashes fiercely with Rome’s citizens and, eventually being hounded from the city he fought so bravely for, decides to join forces with his enemy to destroy it. Shakespeare gives us a man ultimately brought down by his own proud and unshakeable nature; hard to tame and quick-tempered, Coriolanus bulldozes his own path through life, leaving others floundering in his wake. The play presents a raw and vivid mix of shady dealings, mob mentality, and class conflict, and Salter allows the tension to build naturally whilst never skating over crucial events where power suddenly shifts and the threat of death lingers behind like a shadow. It can feel dense and tricky, though luckily not here, chiefly due to the skilful cast.
One of Shakespeare’s most difficult, knotty characters, the title role demands an actor who can command the stage and keep the audience in a state of flux about his heroism and Angus Villiers-Stewart certainly looks the part. Tall and brooding, he stalks the stage like a predator hunting its prey, sweeping others away or into his arms – every inch the “oak, not to be wind-shaken.” But although Villiers-Stewart grasps the warrior’s anger and flippancy well, there is something a little too clinical, too technical about him. Emotional and personal moments are either readily skipped over or played artificially and as a result, the performance feels uneven and a little one-note. The complexity, one feels, is lacking here. Still, there are scenes that pack a wallop, not least a heart-stopping fight with his nemesis Aufidius and the famous ‘common cry of curs’ speech where his red-faced howls to the unrelentingly savage crowd provide a striking denouement to the first half.
Elsewhere, the chief cast breathe life into proceedings with style and clarity. A few performances leap out. Oozing presence, Tessa Hatts’ stately portrait catches the fiery nature and strength of Volumnia whilst allowing for glimpses of the vulnerability underneath; not only viciously proud but also pathetically doting. As the gratingly smug Brutus and Sicinius, the foolish, self-serving tribunes of the people, Scott Westoby and Matthew Stewart work pleasingly together and pitch their respective characters just the right side of hateful; as their meddling becomes ever more dangerous, threatening to crumble Rome, smarminess flips to sweaty panic. And I found it hard to take my eyes off Adam Elms, who in a tremendous performance, the stand out of the evening, as the affable but wily patrician Menenius, switches from a silver-tongued and kindly politician to an emotionally fragile father figure with power and truth. Dense political tragedies are not usual fare for balmy summer evenings but as effortlessly delivered by this tightly drilled, multi-rolling company, who help to drive the action forward on its collision course with fate, Shakespeare’s text feels urgent and freshly minted.
Covering the entire festival as I am, old favourites such as Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors leap out as huge crowd pleasers – but for some real meat, attack, and intrigue, you could do far worse than heading to Robinson College for this intense political thriller which, sadly, feels more current than it should.
Coriolanus runs until 30th July at Robinson College Gardens, Cambridge.