April 30, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

Coriolanus (Ninagawa Company) @ The Barbican Theatre

I’d never been to the Barbican before Friday night, and I have to say I was incredibly impressed. It’s enormous and beautiful and very much the kind of venue that gets me excited about theatre, life and all the possibility there is. Needless to say I picked up several events guides and am already looking forward to my next visit in June for Cheek By Jowl’s ‘Cymbeline’.

However, as much as I was enjoying being a tourist, I was there for a purpose- the Ninagawa Company, who presented their ‘Titus Andronicus’ in the Complete Works Festival, were performing ‘Coriolanus’, the sixteenth in their epic attempt to produce every single Shakespeare play, which has so far taken eighteen years.

This, as ever with Ninagawa, was theatre-making on an epic scale. A cast of around 40, with enormous mirrors around the stage stretching this number to infinity, made for tremendous crowd and fight scenes that showed off Ninagawa’s mastery of spectacle. The set, an enormous flight of stone steps filling almost the entire stage, made for an impressive impact, with actors flying up or tumbling down, jumping around each other, running about and creating superb visual images. For other scenes, also, the sheer height of the set made for fantastic impressions- Coriolanus’ slow ascent to his mother as she convinced him to go and show humility and descent to her level after she begged forgiveness were both given great dramatic weight by the change in height.

The company featured some actors who are highly acclaimed in their home country, which led to some odd (to an English audience) billings- Virgilia, considering her almost tacit role, was among the top four billed actors, and Sicinius was billed as one of the main six while Brutus took his bows with the supporting cast, which is very unusual for an English audience used to the tribunes acting as a pair. The performances were solid though, in particular Kotaro Yoshida (who played the title role in ‘Titus’) as a strong and active Menenius and Kayoko Shiraishi as an upright Volumnia, who created great effect by completely prostrating herself before her son in the begging scene.

My main gripe with the play lay in Toshiaki Karasawa’s Coriolanus. A relatively slight actor, he showed his power through an agile fighting style and good vocal and emotional range, and he stood out in every scene he appeared in. However, each of his scenes felt as if it was played for individual effect. I didn’t feel a through-line with Coriolanus- in one scene he was arrogant, in another misunderstood, in one heroic, in another brutal. He played each scene to full effect, but those effects added up to a somewhat muddled portrayal of Coriolanus which didn’t really explain what the character’s flaws were or why he was so hated. Similarly, the relationship between himself and Aufidius seemed misunderstood- whereas Gregory Doran’s production took the homoeroticism to crude extremes, this production (deliberately or ignorantly) ignored that slant completely, and even the actor playing Aufidius admitted in the programme that he struggled to understand his character’s attitude towards Coriolanus.

Long-time readers may recall that I had a slightly ambivalent reaction to Ninagawa’s ‘Titus’, and I had the same reaction here, though I feel slightly better able to articulate it here. This was a production that was mechanically excellent- it hit the right buttons, it looked phenomenal, the performances were very good, the design was spectacular and the action was well directed. But it lacked heart. This, along with ‘Titus’ was in my opinion a classic example of style over substance, with a beautiful looking production that sadly had little original to say and precious little heart. That said, I desperately want to see the company do one of the comedies, to see if they can bring out humour and warmth where it matters.

I don’t mean to say I didn’t like the production. I thoroughly enjoyed all three and a quarter hours (!) of it, and the time flew by. It has made an indelible visual impression on my mind, and was superior in many ways to the RSC’s production. Ninagawa is a master of working out how to say the things he wants to say- my hope is that in the future he can spend more time working out exactly what it IS that he wants to say.

Posted in Theatre review