Deservedly not one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, Coriolanus explores political issues at length, with not much character development and little humour to lighten the drama. However, as with almost everything by Shakespeare, it has much wonderful writing, good dramatic situations and is worth seeing.
Coriolanus himself is a rather unidimensional character: full of sound and fury, signifying not much. Hugely successful as a warrior and general, he has a problem talking the political talk and would probably even have difficulty winning a Labor Party leadership ballot.
The part is acted well by Rob Pensalfini in this “chamber production” by Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble in the old St Lucia Avalon Theatre’s cosy performance space. Pensalfini convincingly portrays the heroic general who leads from the front and single-handedly rains terror on his enemies, while fearing dialogue with his own citizens and consequently behaving very badly.
Although too youthful in appearance in the key role of Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia, Christina Koch does well in depicting her fierce ambition for her son and her shaky ethics. Sarah Ogden as Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia and Lyndsay Sweeney as friend Valeria play their supporting roles well. Especially well done is the pivotal scene where the three women beg Coriolanus to spare Rome from destruction.
Stephen Daniels as Menenius looks every inch a stereotypal Roman senator in the Charles Laughton mode and handles his part well, while Scott Drummond and Jodhi Doyle play capable lieutenants to the emotional Coriolanus. Matthew Clowes gives a nastily convincing portrayal of Volsces’ leader Auffidius, showing both his respect for and irritation with Coriolanus.
The mixture of accents among the cast is good, especially the North American tones of the two tribunes, played by Anne Pensalfini and Pannah-yota. Cast members playing the mixture of plebeians, soldiers, senators, servants and police give an excellent contextual performance (despite one or two lapses in concentration during the political speeches), and carry off their parts in the forum and on the battlefield with great energy well done Ben Cornfoot, Carolyn Davies, Tom Dickenson, David Keirnan, Kathleen Murphy, Christopher Peauril and Josh Taylor.
As director, Anne Pensalfini has done a great job in orchestrating the action on a bare stage with minimal props and functional costumes (all of which are good except Coriolanus’s absurd bright yellow festal robe and cap one can’t blame him for being reluctant to talk to the plebs in that gear!).
Pensalfini makes good use of the various exits, in particular the upstage doors which provide a great moment in Coriolanus’s famous single-handed storming of the enemy city, augmented by his appearance above, hewing and slaying the hapless Volscians. The many fights are most effective, as evidenced by the appearance of some genuine wounds on some of the players.
QSE deserve credit for staging a production of a play little seen in Brisbane, and in doing it well.