It’s a case of ‘The king is dead, long live the king’ at the Globe as Dominic Dromgoole takes over as Artistic Director from Mark Rylance.
During his outstanding ten-year reign, Rylance established the Globe as a genuinely exciting venue for experimenting with different ways of staging Shakespeare, as well as popularising the Bard to new audiences. Of course not all of his maverick ideas succeeded and not all the cynics were persuaded, but he never opted for a safe ‘heritage’ approach to Shakespeare, with theatre being merely part of the tourist industry.
Dromgoole, formerly in charge of the Bush and Oxford Stage Company, where he produced new and classic drama, and author of the recent book on the Bard Will and Me, seems the ideal successor to carry on Rylance’s adventurous populism. His first season, entitled ‘The Edges of Rome’, looks like a bold undertaking. The relatively infrequently staged Coriolanus and Titus Andronicus will be followed by the much better known Antony and Cleopatra and The Comedy of Errors and two new plays by Simon Bent and Howard Brenton, all with a Roman connection.
New blood is much in evidence in Dromgoole’s opening production of Coriolanus. Caius Martius, later named Coriolanus in honour of his virtually single-handed taking of the city of Corioles from the Volscians, is the Roman Republic’s Terminator. However, although in war he may be a fearless killing machine, in peacetime Coriolanus is uncertain of his role in the state.
Being a proud warrior not a calculating politician, he will not curry favour with the citizens to be elected consul. He finds it impossible to disguise his disdain for the plebeians who, stirred up by their representative tribunes, demand his death, commuted to banishment. Enraged, Coriolanus offers his services to his former arch-enemy Aufidius, and leads the Volscian army on a bloody path towards Rome.
For a play which, like Julius Caesar, turns on the fickleness of the mob, Dromgoole makes full use of the audience in the crowd scenes. The citizens mingle with the groundlings standing in the Yard in front of the stage, which is accessed by two wooden ramps. With evident reluctance, Coriolanus descends into the crowd as if lowering himself into a swamp, as he tries to get elected, and when stabbed at the end, he topples over the side of the stage with his body disappearing beneath the heaving throng.
The social dynamics of this highly political and rhetorical play work very well, with the actors frequently addressing the audience, but the rabble-rousing speeches would have much more impact if their audibility was improved. Of course this is always a problem with open-air theatre, and you can’t divert the flight path overhead during performance, but some of the cast’s projection and, indeed, verse-speaking could be much better. Words are often lost not just due to noises off but because the dialogue is garbled.
Although overall the staging is fluent and pacy, the battle scenes are distinctly under-powered. It’s not necessary to have Gladiator-style set-pieces to evoke the military background, but something more needs to be done to suggest the heroic nature of Coriolanus’ exploits, which seem ludicrously Pythonesque at times. And although sardonic humour is very much part of the play, overall Dromgoole tries to raise too many cheap laughs, which undercuts the tragic grandeur of the protagonist’s fate.
Also there are times where the desire to create an effect verges on outright gimmickry, such as Aufidius plucking out Coriolanus’ bleeding heart. Pandering to the masses, you might say.
The broad-framed, muscular Jonathan Cake certainly has the physical presence for Coriolanus, as he swaggers and sneers his way around the stage in an unselfconsciously commanding way: he is very much a man of action rather than a man of words. But he doesn’t capture the deeply flawed nobility of Coriolanus, resembling more the victorious captain of a public school rugby team than a tragic war hero.
Margot Leicester excels as his redoubtable mother Volumnia, the only person who has any real influence on him – whether she is glorying in his battle wounds or beseeching him to spare Rome, Coriolanus will always be her headstrong boy. Mo Sesay makes little impact as his rival Aufidius, and there is no suggestion of a homoerotic attraction between these two mutually obsessed macho figures.
Robin Soans is amusingly wily as Menenius, the patrician spindoctor who tries to soften Coriolanus’ public image, while John Dougall and Frank McCusker are plausibly persuasive as the tribunes Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus respectively, quietly manipulating the mob for their own political ends.