Four people step onto the stage; one carries a fifth on his back. Two on-stage musicians provide the soundtrack. There are echoes of Noh theatre about the scene – some of the actors are even carrying masks. But the costumes read differently; these are ‘realistic’ clothes, the blue shibori traditional tie-dyed cloth of peasants. Once he steps down off his carrier’s back, Martius – soon to be Coriolanus – does not to speak, but rather puts a Komuso basket on his head. Is it there to evoke a military helmet? the player/ beggar seeking alms? Or is it both: the samurai warrior in his traditional disguise?
Whatever the answer, the tone is set. This Coriolanus (it seems) is not about the irresolvable tragic conflict between the aristocracy and the plebians of Rome; this Coriolanus aims for comic subversion. It’s a play about how the canny lower classes outwit the bombastic upper class hero and get away with it. Shakespeare’s scenes of riot and war in the long first act, here become a series of childish games: the bugles don’t quite work but instead produce Punch and Judy-style voices. Towards the end of the first half, those playground games return and escalate further as the chorus first follow Coriolanus, then play follow-my-leader, then further subvert that game by a mimicry which verges on bullying.
As Martius/Coriolanus laments his apparent imminent defeat, the chorus keep blowing out the votive torch he is trying to light; and this Roman hero is armed with… a baguette. It’s a nice touch – Coriolanus famously starts with a bread shortage, a riot and a lot of talk about bellies. But as the baguettes multiplied across the show, as the chorus spoke the lines of both senate and citizens through flying crumbs, the hunger and discontent of Shakespeare’sRome was dissipated. As the bread turned into a circus, it was easy to forget that this is a play about the brutality of peace as well as of war.
Many of the productions in the Globe to Globe season have gone for the spectacular to entertain and win over audiences who do not speak their language. This Japanese production took the risky decision to trade on language: Coriolanus never stops talking. When, under heavy duress, he finally makes his speech to the citizens, he does so in a fake accent (rather than an insincere tone). The self-consciousness of the performer’s play-acting the leader risked being lost on those without knowledge of Japanese. At Tuesday’s performance a timely overhead helicopter aided and betted the actor, suggesting the great leader had perhaps jetted in for some crowd-pleasing election speeches. When Coriolanus lets his hair down and leavesRomeas an exile to travel to the Volscian capital, his disguise fools no one: the chorus outdo each other in stealing his baguettes. The play moves towards a monologue; Coriolanus is transformed from playground alpha male to incessant bore. At one point the others load him up and carry him off-stage and he still does not stop talking; indeed he seems not to notice that his feet are no longer on the ground.
In the first act, there is a heavy price to pay for this focus on Coriolanus and his language. Little room is left for the women’s voices to emerge. His wife Virgilia steps forward from the chorus only briefly in the first half. When Volumnia his mother, emerges for the first time in the second half, she is voiced by her son in a strange sound-scape possession. And yet this disconcerting moment also signals a promising change of pace: a shift towards the kind of expressionist almost operatic style of theatre for which this company — Chiten – are renowned. When the chorus, now playing Volumnia and her family, visit Coriolanus to plead for Rome’s safety, Volumnia kneels, addressing her son in a swaying sing-song. It is a far cry from Vanessa Redgrave’s recent berating of Ralph Fiennes while sporting full military regalia.* This static keening Volumnia seems to hypnotise her son into submission, her erratically pitched pleading raised against Coriolanus’ groans. It does not always work, but the moments when it did gave a glimpse of a much braver experimental version of Coriolanus struggling to get out.
Chiten are an experimental theatre company, based in Kyotoand directed by Motoi Miura. Theirs is the first Japanese language production to be staged at the Globe. This is worth noting simply because there is such a strong tradition of Japanese Shakespeare from the extraordinary films of Akira Kurosawa to the ground-breaking productions of Yukio Ninegawa and Tadashi Suzuki, whom Miura has acknowledged as an important influence on his work. Perhaps this tradition took its toll? When Globe to Globe director Tom Bird found Chiten, they were not in Japan but in Moscow; they were playing not Shakespeare but Chekov – an hour-long version of The Seagull complete with tea ceremony, video installation and klaxons.**
We caught just one or two further glimpses of the experimental possibilities of this company’s work when the chorus, now transformed from Coriolanus’ family to Volscian soldiers, voiced their dissatisfaction with war through physical anguish: Suzuki-style impossible movements extended for unearthly lengths of time. Another such powerful moment came when those failed snorting bugles of the first act eventually sounded for Coriolanus’ death, and the performers tried, again and again to hoist the leader’s body on to their backs; they failed. Such glimpses left me wondering what if they had chosen to not to perform a full, text-based version of Coriolanus, but had instead followed their own theatrical practice and given their audience a braver account of Shakespeare’s tragedy?
Dr Deana Rankin
Senior Lecturer in English and Drama
Academic Co-ordinator, English and Drama
Royal Holloway, University of London
* Ralph Fiennes, dir. Coriolanus (2011)