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London Theatre Reviews

CORIOLANUS by Patrick Marmion

Arrogance, Rebuffed

By Patrick Marmion

One of the biggest egos in all of Shakespeare, the titular hero of Coriolanus isn't also one of the Bard's brightest buttons

One of the biggest egos in all of Shakespeare, the titular hero of Coriolanus isn't also one of the Bard's brightest buttons. Convinced that his integrity is as unimpeachable as his record slaying enemies of the Roman Empire, Shakespeare paints Coriolanus as an heroic and widely adored warrior seemingly unable to avoid winding everyone up by speaking his mind.

Although the play is often seized upon to illustrate some contemporaneous political folly, it is simply taken at face value in Dominic Dromgoole's vigorous new production at Shakespeare's Globe. The play becomes merely a wholesome account of overweening pride that is tragically laid low on account of the hero's contempt for the common people.

In the hands of heartthrob actor Jonathan Cake, Coriolanus has the celebrity status of a victorious football player who, returning to Rome from wars with the Volscians, is honored with a consulship. But when he refuses to debase himself by seeking the approval of the people, they then turn on him, scoffing at his unmanageably inflated superiority. What we take from his downfall is the pleasure of Schadenfreude, not political poignancy.

In his first season in charge at Shakespeare's Globe, Dromgoole delights in this debunking dimension of the play. His Jacobean production is full of a bullish Britishness, showing a solidarity with the audience by having the actors go among them. It's a move that has the effect of casting the crowd as the people of Rome. It's also a bold popular touch in an open top theater which allows little subtlety, and where the actors must contend with helicopters, private jets and intercontinental 747s.

The downside of this approach is that Jonathan Cake's boyish Coriolanus is seldom taken seriously. When confronted by Margot Leicester as his hilariously overbearing mother you almost expect this tantrum-throwing, blood-spattered warrior to shuffle on his feet and go "Aw, shucks, I've been a naughty boy, haven't I mommy?" As for the alleged repressed homosexual longings that Coriolanus harbors for his great rival Tulllus Aufidius, there is no sign of these whatsoever. Cake is just a big hunky hetero.

Most amusing, however, are Trevor Fox and Paul Rider as a couple of insolent, devil-may-care citizens who change political allegiances as readily as they change their codpieces. But, in the midst of all this cheery iconoclasm, Robin Soans as Coriolanus's father keeps the play's political wranglings in focus, preventing it from sliding into open farce. The result is a hail and hearty night that does at least occasionally call upon one's gray matter.