For a long time Shakespeare's Coriolanus was rarely performed and rarely liked, but the director and star of a new production opening in Wellington this week have been converted, writes Tom Cardy.
Only a few people in any modern audience are familiar with William Shakespeare's Coriolanus. It is not one of his best-known plays and is rarely staged.
But in the past few years there has been a shift to the play, written about 1608.
In 2011, British actor Ralph Fiennes starred in and directed a movie version, which included Gerard Butler, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave.
Shakespeare's sources included Plutarch's history of Rome and the playwright set it in Roman times. Fienne's adaptation was set in the present day with tanks, machine guns and Fiennes as the general Coriolanus reciting Shakespeare's lines via Skype.
Wellington theatre company The Bacchanals, which has staged several Shakespeare plays since it was founded in 2000, won't be setting its Coriolanus in any specific era, but it will be faithful to the text.
The irony for director David Lawrence is that before choosing the play, he had never been a fan of Coriolanus and had resisted earlier suggestions that The Bacchanals perform it.
"Lots of students make fun of me now, because it was always the play I rail against as being my least favourite," he says.
Last year, Lawrence read a shortlist of about 10 Shakespeare plays to help make a decision on which play the company would stage this year. His readings included Coriolanus, although he wasn't considering it as part of the shortlist.
"Coriolanus was a play I'd never given any decent attention to since the late 1990s. I would just go, 'Oh, it's a boring overcomplicated political play'.
"But it just staggered me - all the amazing things that were in it that I had not spotted as a teenager or in my early 20s or I had forgotten were in there.
"The wonderful thing with Shakespeare is that when you mature and age, there are plays that once didn't make sense, but now make sense to you."
Lawrence, who directed The Bacchanals' production of Julius Caesar in 2011, says Coriolanus was important for the company.
"For me, as director, and us, as a company, because our Shakespeare journey has been haphazard, you get to certain points where you go, 'What's the next play that we can conceivably do that makes sense for the journey we are going on?'
"A play as difficult as this is good for us."
In the play, Coriolanus succeeds in beating back Rome's enemy, the Volsci, and is elected to political office. But he openly despises the poor and opposes the distribution of food to the starving. He is banished, so allies himself with his former nemesis, Volsci general Tullus Aufidius, and invades Rome.
Lawrence says one of the triumphs of Coriolanus is how audiences change their mind about the general.
"He believes richer people are better than poorer people. It's a hard thing to grapple with when you have a central character who is potentially very unlikeable.
'To then turn the tables in the second half of the play and get you to feel for him once he's outside the political realm of Rome is really interesting."
Alex Greig, who plays Coriolanus, says one reason audiences come around to empathising with his character is because it's true to human behaviour.
"It's written more than 400 years ago and it's set in Rome, but it's more about how humans respond to situations. That doesn't change.
"You think that you're so much more civilised and that you are above all that - but you are still this animal, this human being that is being affected by all these outside influences and there's only a certain range of emotions that you can express from that.
"The fact that this guy reacts like he does is, 'Yes, I can understand. Why wouldn't you? If I was in that situation I'd do the same.' That's what really pulls me into Shakespeare. It's just raw emotion."
Lawrence and Greig say staging a lesser-known Shakespeare play like Coriolanus has pluses and minuses over a Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.
"For me, it feels a lot less pressured because everyone knows Hamlet and 'To be or not to be'. If I mess up a line in that, everyone's going to know.
"With this I haven't got [to think] 'How do I make this different?'
"I can just go, 'This is how it feels right'. It doesn't matter because I don't know if anyone else has done it like that and hopefully the audience doesn't either," Greig says.
"You can plan it knowing 75 per cent of the audience isn't going to know the story and how the play ends.
"All the surprises and things that excited me a year ago when I re-read the play, we can convey them," Lawrence says.
Greig, who has performed in Shakespeare plays, says he can't help but like Coriolanus.
"It has become one of my favourites.
"I would put it up there in the top three that I've done."
Lawrence agrees. "A play I had no patience for a year ago is now one of my favourites in the canon. Sometimes there's nothing more glorious than being proved that wrong."
Coriolanus, The Long Hall, Roseneath, Wellington, January 24-February 2, 7pm
- © Fairfax NZ News
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