THEATRE / Crowded out: Paul Taylor reviews Lepage's Coriolan at the Nottingham Playhouse

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Eminent foreign directors seem to be getting their wires crossed on the subject of Shakespeare's crowds. First there was Peter Stein who brought over to Edinburgh this summer all 200 of the German extras who played the populace in his Julius Caesar. For all its elaborately choreographed staging, this cast-of- thousands gambit came across as a peculiarly pointless exercise, merely underlining how monolithic and predictable a mob the play presents us with.

Now, in complete and equally perverse contrast, we have Robert Lepage's Theatre Repere version of Coriolanus, which is currently visiting the Nottingham Playhouse. As you can gather from the play's very first scene - which shows a starving, mutinous band of citizens suddenly restrain itself and pause to debate the hero's flaws and achievements and to speculate, with real acumen, about what motivates him - the crowd in this intensely political work is a much more sophisticated and various phenomenon. Yet in Lepage's heavily cut version, not a glimpse is granted of it.

But then you get a restricted view of the play in other ways. Establishing a peeping tom's perspective on the proceedings, which are set in a Dolce Vita-style Fellini-esque Rome, Lepage squashes all the action into a narrow letterbox-like slit in a huge wall. Intentionally, on some occasions, you can only see people's legs, though it's unclear quite what you gain from concentrating on Coriolanus's khaki knees and awkward hands rather than on his facial reactions during the climactic scene of maternal entreaty. As staged here, though, this family embassy does have its hilarious side. The company has no child actor, so your only glimpse of the hero's son is of a bit of blazer and a pair of freakishly long legs that remain upright through the scene's entire epidemic of supplicatory kneeling.

Using a cast of only 10, Lepage is forced to find ingenious alternative ways of conveying the great public scenes and battles. So we see drinkers watching TV reports at the local bar, the pictures themselves invisible to us since the scene is angled from the barmaid's point of view. The military action devolves on to absurd little stringed puppets, except for the one-to-one combat between Aufidius and Jules Philips's harsh, aquiline, youthful Coriolanus, which becomes a nude love wrestle that makes the one in Women in Love look like a bad case of mutual indifference. Even when the updating makes scant sense of the situation in modern political terms, we get recording studios, television access programmes and telephone conversations rather than the play's broad canvas of discord.

My suspicion is that Lepage is not very interested in the political subtleties and would prefer a more narrowly psycho- sexual drama. He equips Aufidius, for example, with a boyfriend. Indeed, because of the smallness of the cast, this young man, who is presented as jealous of his lover's twisted warrior-crush on Coriolanus, has to stand in for the whole Volscian tribe. You therefore lose the sense that when Coriolanus switches sides, the Volscians are so in awe of their new ally that Aufidius is in danger of being eclipsed, thus making jealousy one of his motives for wishing the hero dead. In this chicly staged but shallow, unexploratory account of the play, it's significantly the boyfriend not a crowd - erotic discontent not politics - that kills Coriolanus. He is shot in the back of the head while wrestling with Aufidius, who has to wriggle out from under his dead quasi- sexual embrace.

Nottingham Playhouse (0602 419419)

(Photograph omitted)