The atmosphere in “Coriolanus”, NSW University Theatrical Society’s (NUTS’) latest theatrical offering, is tense. The play is a Shakespearean tragedy, innately intimidating for both actor and audience in wordiness and rhythm. The soundtrack to the show is pulsing and constant. From the beginning, the intention is an immersion in the stressful political climate of Rome amid the Roman-Volscian war, albeit in an updated and abstracted version.
The play follows the political and personal struggles of Coriolanus, a military leader with a quick temper and a cutting tongue, as conflicts between integrity and political necessity play out. This titular role is traditionally male, but the choice to change the gender of Coriolanus is one of the key things that helps this production to succeed so engagingly. Coriolanus in this production is a woman of colour in a teetering position of power. The new dimensions this adds to the role allow the bones of the tragedy to ring true, giving their questions more depth.
This production is bold. The set is abstract and parts of it move between scenes, and while the significance of this isn’t always clear, this definitely changed the space each time. Some speeches are delivered stock still, some in an ‘echo-chamber’ of other characters. There are next to no props. The most immersive moment in the show was a bold interactive beginning, which definitely took some audience members by surprise. In the scheme of the show, however, the idea made sense, but it made for an uneasy start.
The moments that worked best in this production, however, were the ones that were familiar in their timelessness – two lovers reunited yet separated by the things they’ve experienced while apart, or a woman in power surrounded by people telling her she must be softer, more personable in order to lead. What struck this reviewer particularly was the image of a woman, one whose years of faithful service led her to be put forward for a position of great power, having her political career sabotaged by rich wordsmiths who construct narratives in order to incite anger. The phrase “You have done a good work,” is rarely uttered with such devastating sarcasm. It could have been in response to Brexit, or the election of a certain President.
Naks Suresh is a revelation in the title role. From her first step onstage, Coriolanus is an unknown quantity. She pulses with rage and fearsome physicality, somehow simultaneously stone-faced and expressive. The relationship between Coriolanus and her mother Volumina, played by Hannah Irwin, is worth seeing the show for. Volumina is one of two characters who wear traditionally “feminine” clothing in the whole show, and she wears her red dress like a suit of armour. Her world weariness and carefully harnessed anger shapes the events of the story in big ways, and changes the audience’s perception of Coriolanus every time she enters.
Shakespearean tragedies in their nature are long and at times confusing. The language, especially at pace, is, at times, a little obtuse. But the essential moments in the play land. Instances of comedy don’t feel jarring or out of place. The sequences of more stylised movement aren’t clumsy. The moments of romance are believable and honestly a little devastating. The role of Coriolanus’ husband; somehow patient, loving and despairing all in one, is a highlight.
The casting was phenomenal, and Lisa Gluckman’s costume design complemented it perfectly. The play worked smoothly enough that, unlike many student productions, the audience was thinking about the story, not the mechanics. NUTS’ “Coriolanus” offers plentiful food for thought, and the plethora of imperfect characters presented with such precision are what make this a show worth seeing.