Arts Review: Coriolanus – Bard in the Botanics

Dir. Gorden Barr, Botanic Gardens, 24 June – 9 July

The Kibble Palace is an unlikely location for a performance of Shakespeare’s fast-paced play Coriolanus: surrounded by greenery and glass, the audience sit in two rows facing each other, frequently swivelling their heads as the actors stalk past. But it’s an improbable venue that works exceptionally well in bringing Shakespeare’s tale of Roman soldiers and rebels to this year’s Bard in the Botanics.

Caius Marcia is a strident Roman soldier who is renowned for her skill on the battlefield but, dismissive of the starving Roman populace, her elitist pride serves to usher in her downfall.  Director Gordon Barr’s interpretation of Coriolanus is significantly different from the original: the gender-swapping of several protagonists, including Caius Marcia, her husband and one of Rome’s tribunes, allows for an assertion of feminine toughness and is more convincing and believable because of it. The characters are people with human frailties and merits, rather than cardboard cut-outs of gender stereotypes (like so many of Shakespeare’s other works). Additionally, the judicious snipping of superfluous characters and scenes makes for a more streamlined, powerful rendition that works well with the small, eight-strong cast.

And the cast themselves are excellent. Seeing Shakespeare performed is always a different, more rewarding experience than merely reading it on the page, the talented actors transform the words into a transfixing, mesmerising spectacle. Its location seems only to further this: where traditional staging would detach the audience from the action, the immersion of the viewers, and the re-imagination of their presence as part of the tribune, works effectively to create a more engaging involvement for all. Voices echo impressively within the enclosed space and the contrast between heightened moments of tension and unsettling quiet is another of the venue’s benefits. The plot, although typically secondary to the skilful characterisation, moves swiftly and stirringly; no dull moments in this version of Coriolanus.

It’s a production that is perfect for people who wouldn’t often consider Shakespeare as something they would be interested in – Barr does an exceptional job of reinvigorating an old classic for a new audience.

[Rachel Walker]

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