first night

Coriolanus

Lucy Watkiss watches Hill College Theatre Company's staging of a lesser-known Shakespearean tragedy.

 Hill College Theatre Company’s performance of Coriolanus is an engaging spectacle, innovatively portraying Shakespeare’s masterpiece of ambiguous morals, political backstabbing and devastating betrayal. By the means of an ominous soundtrack, minimalist staging and stellar performances by a talented, gender-reversed cast, this performance offers an illuminating and thought-provoking reworking of a classic, capable of delighting Shakespearian purists and newcomers alike.

Directors Beth Beaden and Ollie Tallis have created a nuanced and slick production with many stylized and original touches. The minimalist staging and costumes – smocks and togas coloured red or black to indicate loyalty to the Romans or Volscians – was an inspired choice, which importantly allowed an undistracted audience to focus on the language and physicality delivered by the well-rehearsed and confident cast. The soundtrack was similarly innovative: a selection of heavy base and hip-hop music added tension to the climactic scenes. However, in future, greater control should be exercised over the playing of the music as, at such a high volume, it often obscured important dialogue forcing the cast to shout, which itself brought little improvement.

The choreographing of the battle scenes was a particular highlight. They were immensely exciting to watch, leaving the audience on tender-hooks, and were an evident enjoyment for the cast to perform. The scenes were dynamic, visceral but slick and carefully chaotic. The assumed time and attention dedicated to such sections definitely paid off and put the physical presentation of the play on a par with the high standard of oral delivery.

The entire cast, supporting and principal, had an impressive command of the complicated language, with very few dialogue hiccups occurring despite it being the first performance. Especially deserving of praise were Dixi Taylor’s Aufidius and Jake Goldman’s Menenius, who communicated the complex and sly political machinations of their characters with incredible fluency. The audience could quite easily have forgotten that they were listening to Shakespearian rather than modern day English! 

The gender-blind casting, an audacious choice taken by directors Beaden and Tallis, avoided the potential pitfall of eye-catching gimmickry and was most effective in practice. Intelligently utilizing all of the space available in the Assembly Rooms, the blood-bating Volscian army opened the play with furious shouts from the auditorium. An audience’s awareness of this traditionally masculine aggression was heightened by it being performed by the opposite gender. It provoked a sudden questioning of our impulsive decision to characterize certain behavior as appertaining to a specific gender. Particularly exemplary of this was the eponymous heroine herself. From her first entrance Susannah Slevin’s Coriolanus had a commanding and fearsome presence on stage. However it was her great range – portraying both Coriolanus’ unabated fury and his sympathetic side – that warrants the most praise.  Succeeding in provoking an audience’s pity for a character often condemned for his arrogance and foolhardy obduracy is a commendable feat.

Wilf Wort had a difficult task, portraying Coriolanus’ infamous mother (cum father) Volumnia, which he did with conviction and finesse. His emotional performance ranged from passionate displays of overbearing pride to parental shame. The scene of the attempted reconciliation between Coriolanus, his wife and his father was one of the most tender and a welcome contrast to the brutal violence throughout. Similarly diverting, Nikita Karia and Fraser Logue had a terrific rapport as the crafty tribunes Brutus and Sicinius. They provided much comic relief and their humorous delivery was somewhat reminiscent of a pantomime double-act.

HCTC are evidently in their element with Coriolanus, as the theatre company is now developing a strong reputation for Classical and Shakespearian drama. An encouraging opening to the Epiphany term for the DST, with its unique directorial decisions and a strong cast committed to producing a high-octane, exhilarating performance, Coriolanus is one not to be missed by any theatre enthusiast. 

22 January 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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