William Shakespeare's Coriolanus tells the story of the Roman General Caius Marcius Coriolanus. An unparalleled soldier, things go bad when he stands as Consul and gets on the wrong side of the people he is foolish enough to admit to despising. With its political intrigue, factional political battles and themes of personal integrity and fitness to hold office, the play feels surprisingly modern, and peculiarly relevant to our current political climate.

This is a stripped down tragedy with virtually no soliloquies and everything about the staging suits this perfectly.

Its contemporary relevance means Coriolanus needs no tricks to engage its audience, and none are employed in this production. The set is virtually non-existent, the costumes are not era-specific, and the play is more or less given to us straight, without any attempts to give the audience breaks or distractions. The production is set out in traverse style (more or less essential in the space), and this works particularly well for a play in which most of the scenes happen in front of an audience of either senators or commoners. The audience is constantly brought into the action, cajoled or insulted by the various politicians in a way that feels completely natural. This is all absolutely right for the play. This is a stripped down tragedy with virtually no soliloquies and everything about the staging suits this perfectly.

The cast is very strong. Nicole Cooper's Coriolanus is everything she should be: powerful, proud, likeable in spite of herself. Janette Foggo's Volumnia is a commanding presence and Foggo brings a depth and humility to the role that never compromises the strength of the character. Alan Steele really steals the show with his Menenius: by turns the fool, the statesman, and the father, Steele brings a nuance and coherency to the role that I found wonderful.

The treatment of gender in the production is worthy of note. As usual, Bard in the Botanics has no compunction about swapping a few genders around and, slightly unusually, does this by actually changing characters’ names and pronouns. Nicole Cooper's Coriolanus is not a man played by a woman, she is a female character.

More unusual is the decision to swap the gender of Coriolanus’ wife to become her husband Virgilius, played by Duncan Harte, who does heroic work in bringing a quiet pathos to such an uninspiring role. The character is so insipid that they basically just stand there holding a baby and not saying anything which, when played by a woman, is so familiar as to be unremarkable – played by a man, however, Virgilius’s drippiness becomes something surprisingly shocking. Decisions like this are so valuable that it is only a shame that the company don’t take it further. Having opened the door to gender swapping characters, it seems unfortunate that they still stop at the traditional 70:30 ratio of men to women. The production would have lost nothing, and might have gained a great deal, if half the characters had been female.

In all, this is a highly enjoyable, highly skilful production of a play which is as relevant now as it has always been.

Reviews by Grace Knight

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The Blurb

Soldier, war hero and defender of Rome, Coriolanus is also proud, arrogant and contemptuous of the people. But the Roman people are starving and hungry for change and, after speaking out against them one too many times, Coriolanus is driven out of Rome.

But when Coriolanus teams up with an old enemy to wage war on Rome, the city’s greatest hero becomes its greatest threat.

Shakespeare’s searing tragedy of political manipulation and revenge makes its Bard in the Botanics’ debut in the stunning surroundings of the Kibble Palace Glasshouse.