In 2017, Robert Hastie announced himself as the new artistic director of Sheffield Theatres with his inaugural production – a thrilling version of Julius Caesar, with inevitable parallels to the political upheavals of the time. Three years later, he’s back exploring another of Shakespeare’s military tragedies, the equally powerful yet less frequently performed Coriolanus.
In fact, Hastie’s Coriolanus almost plays as a spiritual successor to his Caesar, reuniting most of the design team and revisiting many of the elements that made that production such a success: the inclusive casting, the modern dress, the walkways stretching through the audience for the cast to wander. There’s even a reprise of Ben Stones’ senate-room set, for which an entire row of seats in the auditorium has been removed while the thrust stage of the Crucible has been remodelled to resemble the United Nations.
Tom Bateman is a striking and intense Coriolanus. Even if some of his soliloquies verge on the shouty at times, it’s impossible to deny his stage presence, whether he’s sneering contempt at the plebeians (cast again from Sheffield Theatres’ regular collaborators, the Sheffield People’s Theatre), or barking orders at his soldiers on the battlefield.
Hastie’s diverse casting also produces a female Brutus and Sicinius, played by Alex Young and Remmie Milner respectively, while D/deaf actor Hermon Berhane plays Virgilia, signing her lines while a screen descends from the ceiling to display surtitles.
Hastie has a skilled hand on the more psychological aspects of Shakespeare’s text – Stella Gonet is suitably domineering as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, but the homoerotic elements of the relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Theo Ogundipe) have been ramped up as well. It means that the more subtle human relationships of Shakespeare’s characters are given just as much weight as the play’s more famous battle scenes.
Those battle scenes are staged with an almost cinematic intensity – sirens blare, spotlights swoop over the audience, and the immersive nature of Stones’ set means that, depending on where you’re sat, a soldier with a machine gun could be just inches away from you. There’s also some suitably visceral hand-to-hand fighting, with fight director Renny Krupinski’s choreography producing some wince-inducing cracks and snaps.
As with Caesar, the parallels with today’s society are unmistakable – the nature of anti-populism versus plebiscite feeling is one that’s easily relatable. Yet this is never treated with a heavy hand by Hastie, who has produced yet another thrilling, timely and accessible production, opening Shakespeare up to all.