There are some things in life you just don’t do, such as tickling an angry lion or taunting an irritable crocodile. Yet no one taught the Romans that it is not a good idea to scorn and banish your most valiant war hero; chances are he won’t take kindly to it. The opening production of Dominic Dromgoole’s inaugural season as the Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe is Coriolanus, the tale of just such a warrior. Matthew Amer ventured out to the first night on the finest evening of the year so far.
The standing congregation in the yard of Shakespeare’s Globe are plebs. They really are. Though many are dressed in suits or jeans, there are a few interspersed that are decked out in Roman plebeian fashion, for the yard has become Rome’s marketplace in this first production of the Edges Of Rome season, the location for Coriolanus’s half-hearted plea to the masses.
Jonathan Cake plays the soldier-supreme as a cocky, sarcastic, proud predecessor to Rambo. Often drenched with the blood of others, he single-handedly ransacks the Volscian city Corioles before wiping the dripping gore from his blade as though it was of little consequence.
Why would you banish such a hero? It doesn’t help that Rome is in a time of change and hardship. Two tribunes to the people have been elected to the Senate, and use their new-found power to turn the people against Coriolanus. Proud warrior that he is, he holds the common folk in contempt as they do nothing to help the empire while he risks his life regularly.
On leaving Rome, he joins with his old enemy the Volscians – switching from the red uniform of Rome to a brooding, ominous and revengeful black – and brings war to his homeland. Treaties come from old friend Cominius (a commanding Joseph Marcell) and father figure Menenius Agrippa (Robin Soans), the wise and witty go-between constantly trying to placate Coriolanus and the people.
It is only when Coriolanus’s honour-obsessed mother gets involved that disaster is averted. Though he slaughters opposing armies indiscriminately, Coriolanus reverts to schoolboy tendencies of sulking and cowering when spoken to maternally. This, however, is his downfall, as in signing a treaty between the two warring factions he is also signing his own death warrant. The set piece finale in which Coriolanus is murdered by the vengeful Volscians is as tragic and gory as his life.