The Tragedy Of Coriolanus
3 stars ***
THERE’S AN element of pure joy in seeing the Playhouse stage stormed by such an epic production as this immense and vivid Coriolanus, directed by Lin Zhaohua and Yi Liming for the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. With 30 actors on stage, plus eleven musicians from the two Beijing-based heavy metal bands Miserable Faith and Suffocated, this production has no difficulty in conjuring up the crowd scenes that play such a key role in the story of Coriolanus, the successful Roman general so proud of his nobility, and arrogant in his achievements, that he treats the Roman people with blistering contempt, and – after he is banished – forms an alliance with Rome’s great enemy, the Volscian general Aufidius.
So the back wall of Yi Liming’s huge set suggests the great portals and walls of a ruined city, scaled by besieging ladders; and the company play the crowd scenes with terrific comic energy, portraying the fickleness of the mob, and the shallow demagogy of the tribunes. What it all means, in a modern Chinese context or in our own, is less clear; despite the crash and thunder and contrasting subtlety of the music – which captures the sheer violence and exhilaration of Coriolanus’s warrior life – this often seems like a slightly old-fashioned production, built around a fine, traditional Shakespearean peformance from Pu Cunxin as Coriolanus, and a thrilling one from Li Zhen as his mother Volumnia. Yet in the detail of the show, it’s continuously fascinating to watch this encounter between a world-class Chinese company, and a great text which deals so powerfully with issues of democracy and authoritarianism. It’s not a definitive production; but it adds a powerful voice to the human conversation about this mighty drama, and about how to fight for democracy, in the full knowledge of the dangers of mob rule, and of the tyranny of the majority.