POWER and leadership are the themes of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which are relevant to both Elizabethan and contemporary audiences.
Prejudices and the corruption of power are on display after the masses take centre stage in the striking opening scene which could have been anywhere in the world today.
Starved citizens of Rome fill the theatre aisles — similar to scenes in The Enemy Of The People a few years back — to demand justice beneath a huge banner proclaiming “Food Is Made For Mouths.”
The mob complains that the rulers, “suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain” in an angry attack on the rich patricians.
But military commander Caius Martius secures a stunning victory over Rome's enemies, the Volscians, and is rewarded with the title Coriolanus for conquering their capital, Corioli.
Latter-day spin doctors repeatedly tell him that to control the people he must hide his lust for power. But his contempt for those he wishes to rule is so overbearing he can’t disguise his hatred, and he ends up turning his back on his home, with drastic consequences.
The play skilfully updates the conflict to the present, with costumes by Sally Wilson and set design by Ben Stones, and the military violence we see is reminiscent of recent wars, ably choreographed by fight director Renny Krupinksi.
Tom Bateman is convincing as the uptight, arrogant but child-like Coriolanus, who can fight but can’t behave as a grown up.
Coriolanus’s tragedy is that he may appear admirably uncompromising when set against the unprincipled behaviour of those around him — but that strength is also his flaw. Being “true to himself” is to be isolated and self-destructive.
His senator friend, Menenius, is much more cunning.
In that role, Malcolm Sinclair holds the play together as a composite of sleazy characters — from the likes of House of Cards and Yes, Minister — as he contemptuously puts his feet up in Rees-Mogg fashion, while using the common touch to bamboozle the citizens.
It is his mother, Volumnia, who wins where Menenius, in his appeal to patriotism, fails. Stella Gonet shines, among many other strong performances, as a woman passionately battling as much for her own ambitions which have been denied her because of her gender.
Raw, pacy and hardhitting, arguments about democracy, grassroots movements and the strength of community abound.
Immaculately directed by Robert Hastie — who began his term as artistic director with the equally political Julius Caesar — this is a forceful portayal as loyalty and love become the casualties of war in pursuit of power and revenge.
Ultimately Shakespeare’s story is in the audience’s hands to draw their own conclusions.
Coriolanus is at Sheffield Crucible until March 28