Coriolanus @ Barbican, London

The Ninagawa Company brought their much-admired production of Titus Andronicus to Stratford last Summer and now return to London for just five performances of a samurai-inspired Coriolanus. We may have seen a similar approach before in Kurosawa films but onstage it inevitably has an added visceral theatricality as the themes of honour and pride resonate through both the original Roman setting and that of ancient Japan.

There’s an ambiguous quality to Shakespeare’s play and the central character in particular. He is a patrician aristocrat, scornful of the masses, but also noble-minded and self-deprecating, a mummy’s boy as well as a committed warrior. For an English-speaking audience, there is bound to be a loss of subtlety once the original words are removed and this did feel a little like being shouted at in an indecipherable language for three hours.

The 71 year old Yukio Ninagawa’s production is a constant visual feast, however, with much use of mirrors making the 40-strong cast seem even vaster, and a constant clanging of screens that sets the head in a spin.

The whole thing is played on a massive staircase with just a small forestage and there is a stream of frantic movement as actors, young and old, throw themselves up and down the steps. The sight of a small group running up the steep stairs with Coriolanus perched on their shoulders is extraordinary and the fights, carried out in spectacular fashion, must have set the health and safety man quaking.

The battles are balletic, staged as martial arts sequences, with weapons barely touching and recorded sound providing the clash of arms. It’s all the more shocking at Coriolanus’ death when contact is made and his shoulder bursts open in an explosion of blood.

Toshiaki Karasawa has a boyish quality as Coriolanus, the contrast with Kayoko Shiraishi’s mature Volumnia much greater than when he is played by a more experienced actor. She is very much a Lady Macbeth character, maybe a little too overt in her forcefulness as she hectors her compliant son. Nevertheless, there is something genuinely touching about the reconciliation before Rome, with the vengeful son yielding to his mother’s entreaties to save the city.

The hoi polloi are not treated sympathetically by Shakespeare, as they sway in the tribune’s self-interested wind, and there’s always a feeling of schadenfreude as they realise the folly of their actions and the danger they are in. The relationship between the mob and the tribunes is powerfully portrayed.

One of Shakespeare’s least accessible plays in a foreign language may seem a tricky proposition, and I have to say it is quite hard work. Like Tim Supple’s recent A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed in nine Indian languages, it helps to know the play but there are surtitles this time.

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