Directed by Tam Dahmen-O'Neill and presented by The Hartwell Players, Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's lesser known plays, until it was produced as a film in 2011, with Ralph Fiennes playing Coriolanus.
The play begins with the plebeians (The People) rioting at the city gates of Rome. They are starving, as they have run out of corn, and are calling on the Patricians, the ruling class, to have a representative in the Senate to advocate for lowering the price of grain.
The plebeians call for 'Caius Martius' (later to be called Coriolanus) an infamous warlord from the Patricians to support them. Caius Martius (Simone Patrick Berman), with his arrogant nature, has no time for the plebeians, calling them 'dogs' and ignores their pleas for assistance, and so they continue to riot.
The riots escalate causing Caius, his mother Volumnia (Natasha Broadstock), his wife Virgilia (Sienna Stass) and their son Young Martius (Kyrill Koval) to move to a safer location.
Meanwhile the Volscians, prepare for war against Rome led by Aufidius (Joanna Bakker). It's a bloody fight, and Caius Roman army wins by conquering the city of Corioles. Caius Martius is renamed 'Coriolanus' for this feat and he is offered a place in parliament.
Romans face off against Volscians – photo by Mark Anthony Hodgson
However, despite his win and elevation as 'hero', Coriolanus temper and arrogance becomes worse, and continues to put The People offside. Menenius (Chris Dahmen-O'Neill) begs him to go to the marketplace and make peace with The People, however Brutus (Gabrielle Volpe) and Sicinius (April Dawson) plot to bait his temper. They succeed and Coriolanus proves he is nothing but a brawny brute and is banished from Rome, much to his family's despair.
Coriolanus seeks out Aufidius to offer his services and allegiance, in revenge for Rome's banishment. Aufidius takes him in as a friend and gives Coriolanus control of the Volscian army, as they plan to conquer Rome. Volumnia, Virgilia and Young Martius visit Coriolanus and beg him to make peace with Rome, and Young Martius, now a soldier, advises his father he will have to fight against him in the Roman army. Despite their pleading Coriolanus does not relent, and he is eventually killed by Aufidius out of envy.
Assassins (Elisa Kendall and Milana Markovic-Matovic) – photo by Mark Anthony Hodgson
This contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare's Coriolanus by Tam Dahmen-O'Neill reflects current political conflicts – the Gaza Strip and Westbank, Cyprus and Operation Atilla, and Turkey's current invasion of Syria. This is reflected in the set design (Tam Dahmen O'Neill) with wire gates keeping The People out, and the Politicians and Patricians 'in', with city walls full of rubbish and graffiti – reminiscent of films sets like 'Blade Runner' and the post-apocalyptic steampunk style of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
The three tiers of society are clearly identified for the audience through simple but effective costume design (Lachlan Capricious-Case) – the Senate are dressed formally in red white and black, the Patricians in more luxurious style and the People in grey urban street clothing. The choreographed battles scenes (Scott Jackson) in this production are realistic and exciting, as the Volscians and Romans fight under the watchful eye of The People.
This is quite a lengthy production, which cannot be avoided if staying true to the original Shakespearian script. However, it is obvious the cast and crew have worked very hard, and the production has heart – which is community theatre's signature! The cast is a diverse group of people in age, gender, experience and ethnicity.
Deadly enemies Aufidius (Jo Bakker) and Coriolanus are reconciled – photo by Mark Anthony Hodgson
Simon Patrick Berman fiercely portrays 'Coriolanus' as a heartless playboy vigilante, spoilt by his mother Volumnia and adored by his trophy 'football' wife Virgilia.
Joanna Bakker is cast as his nemesis 'Aufidius' which is an interesting choice by the director, as Shakespeare's Aufidius is male. Aufidius portrays a strong feminist warrior (reminiscent of Xena Warrior Princess) with the power to kill and well as empathise and forgive. When Coriolanus seeks out Aufidius her forgiveness and empathy for him, becomes almost an erotic attraction, and rather than executing him, it seems that Coriolanus falls dead to the foul play of the Volscian army. It is hard to take your eyes off Aufidius (Joanna Bakker) and her powerful stage presence.
Young Martius (Kyrill Koval) is also a standout performer, and the youngest in the cast. It is clear from the direction Young Martius is destined to be like his father Coriolanus – in the early scenes he plays with a large weapon and a teddy bear, showing the contradiction of childhood innocence in a time of war.
At times the acting is uneven, and melodramatic in some parts, particularly by the Patrician women grieving for Coriolanus.
Overall, the cast and crew have done well to present this Shakespearian epic with a commitment of 14 performances over three weeks!
This year, the Hartwell Players celebrate 80 years as Melbourne's oldest theatre company which is an amazing legacy. Companies like the Hartwell Players are vital to giving young people a platform to experiment and explore theatre in a community setting, and certainly, provide a great outlet for the thespians and local community of Ashwood and Ashwood Performing Arts High.