Photo – C. K. Reasons
Do you want to see what women are capable of when they are permitted to reveal themselves as strong characters who both instigate and carry the action? Then make a point of catching a performance of Shakespeare's Coriolanus at the Mechanics Intstutite in Brunswick until 8 May.
One of Shakespeare's last tragedies Coriolanus is a strongly masculine work about war and politics, blood, treachery and violence. But then who says that women can't do each of these as well as men? Heartstring, Melbourne's latest independent theatre, set out to show that they can, and judging from their opening night performance, they certainly can.
Coriolanus is Heartstring's first production and boasts an all female cast; in fact the only male presences are director Grant Watson, with lighting design by Kris Chainey and sound desigh by Ben Keene. The play is set in some indeterminant future world where Romans and Volscians are in violent struggle, one against the other. Rome, led by Caius Marcius, has just defeated the Volscians under the command of Tullus Aufidius and is honoured withgiven the honorific title of Coriolanus. She returns to Rome and finds herself lured, against her better judgement, into the political realm. General Cominius and the Patrician Menenius urge her to run for Consul of the Senate, whilst at the same time Tribunes Sicinius and Brutus plot to ensure that the people reject her appointment. Coriolanus is a warrior but not a diplomat. The Tribunes triumph and Coriolanus is denied as Consul and exiled from Rome. Angry and wanting revenge on those who have rejected her, she seeks out her arch-enemy Aufidius and the two form an unlikely alliance.
The wonderful music of Shakespeare's language has been retained and the cast speak it with ease and emotion. Coriolanus (Elisa Armstrong) is a strong, forceful presence who owns the stage. Her facial expressions sometimes rather humourously reveal the chasm between the words she is encouraged to speak and her true beliefs: hers is an hierarchical world in which each has her place and she sees no need to ask for support from the ordinary people, her deeds speak for themselves. Her mother Volumnia is equally striking, aristocratic and ambitious for her daughter. Menenius (Catherine Glavicic) grabs the attention whenever she is on stage and at times is very funny: I didn't expect there to be so many laughs in a tragedy.
Imagination is everything when you are putting on an independent production and this is something that set and costume designer Laura Pearse appears to have in abundance. She has used wooden pallets to create a gated entrance suggestive of a walled city, and must have rummaged through the off-cuts at a fabric store to select the costume materials. Greys, blacks and browns are woven together into costumes that look like they have been made from whatever remnants the characters could find in their war-torn world. Soldiers with black leather, padded shoulders carry shields (car hubcaps work wonderfully well) and short knives. The Roman nobility are identified by slashes of dark red incorporated into their costumes.
Grant Watson's direction ensures that the action moves easily from scene to scene and, at crucial moments, effectively draws the audience into the role of the plebeians.
For some it may have taken a little while to become accustomed to the less than familiar language but before long everyone appeared to be fully engaged with the action and the general consensus was that they didn't feel that they had sat through 110 minutes; the time had seemed much shorter.
For a first production by a newly formed independent theatre this Coriolanus is quite an achievement. You have until Sunday to catch a performance; it's certainly worth the effort.
by William Shakespeare
Director Grant Watson
Venue: Mechanics Intstutite, Brunswick
Dates: 27 April – 8 May 2016
Tickets: $30 – $25