“The directors’ decision to have the performers on stage for the entirety of the production necessitated a highly skilled and engaged cast”Ciaran Walsh

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus traces the tragic downfall of its eponymous hero who, returning victorious from war, faces a second assault when the citizens of his home retract their choice to appoint him consul. At once, the public of an entire city becomes entangled in the psychological battle of a single Roman soldier, and the notion that wounds speak louder than words is thrown into debate as we are shown the terrible results of evocative speeches and vengeful vows. It is a text fundamentally concerned with ‘the people’ versus ‘the person’, so the choice of the directorial team (Anna Moody, Shimali De Silva, and Will Maclean) to strip back their production and have people – the cast – create the world of the play not only made perfect sense, but resulted in a refreshingly different and compelling show.

The decision to opt for minimalism meant the designer (Jack Parham) had to overcome the challenge of transforming the intimate space of Corpus Playroom into Rome – a feat which he skillfully accomplished. Roman architecture was elegantly suggested through draped strips of white fabric, which were inventively manipulated throughout the production to become barriers, weapons, and gags. The absence of props was also a strong choice, as they would have certainly hindered the cast in their storytelling.

The lighting design (Rebecca Fry) was similarly successful in amplifying the shifting atmospheres so well established by the ensemble: the covert scheming of Brutus and Sicinius (Elise Hagan) was intensified through spotlighting. Ominous silhouettes looming at the peripheries of private conversations portrayed the incessant presence of the public pressures; an electrifying battle scene was cinematically transformed through strobes.

Most sound effects were wonderfully created through the performers’ voices and bodies. One moment in which this was particularly effective was when Coriolanus (Adam Mirsky) had to fight against the harmonious vocals of the ensemble surrounding him to make his reluctant appeal heard, emphasising the conflict between him and the united plebeians. Additional soundtracks were occasionally played through the speakers, although these seemed unnecessary and detracted from the otherwise professional and organic essence of the production.

The Directors’ decision to have the performers on stage for the entirety of the production necessitated a highly skilled and engaged cast, which is exactly what they had. The presence and commitment of all performers were remarkable, with every member bringing as much energy to their ensemble parts as they did to their main roles. Xelia Mendes-Jones was particularly attentive in the ensemble, truthfully responding to every sentence and action with subtle changes in expression and, in contrast, commanding the stage with charming confidence as Cominius.  Sabrina Gilby also exhibited stunning domination as Volumnia, delivering her violent monologues with utter conviction and force.

Movement and physicality were defining features of the production, and a moment of the Suzuki method being used to channel and depict strength demonstrated the actors’ complete engagement with their bodies. This physical sensitivity allowed them to seamlessly slip between scenes and characters. In this regard, Hagan was most remarkable; she consistently executed every motion with precision and purpose, and unsettlingly flickered with a simultaneous sharpness and fluidity between her roles of Brutus and Sicinius. The animalistic physicality of Seun Adekoya as Aufidius was also exceptional, bringing to his exchange with Coriolanus a startling intimacy and charge.

In the title role, Mirsky shone in moments of real excellence; a stand-out scene of the entire production was when Coriolanus defiantly turns against the public by declaring ‘I banish you!’, a line which Mirsky delivered with such visceral ferocity that the audience was left genuinely terrified. The incredible emotional intensity of this moment was in a way detrimental to the rest of the play, as it felt so climatic that there was little further it could go. Indeed, the most interesting uses of the stage, movement and sound occurred in the first half, which resulted in a slight sense of deceleration. This did, however, bring a greater focus to the quality of the acting. Emma Corrin gave a particularly nuanced and thoughtful performance as Menenius; by subtly drawing on the script’s suggestion of repressed romantic feelings, she studded his quiet desperation with truly moving outbursts of frustration and panic.

The effortless use of multi-roling and abstract features in Coriolanus was what made it remarkably interesting to watch, but this also, at times, made the plot more difficult to follow. As a result, it felt more like a piece of performance art than a play – which is not an entirely negative criticism. The hard work and creativity of the entire team means that they have been triumphant in creating a spectacle unlike anything else I have seen in Cambridge, and I sincerely hope that future artists view this production as an encouraging testament to the wonderful possibilities of commitment, boldness, and experiment.

Coriolanus is on at the Corpus Playroom until 2 March

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