With the RSC’s Rome Season heating up Stratford-Upon-Avon this Summer, their final production of the season Coriolanus, is one of Shakespeare’s most political plays. Making his RSC debut as the title role of Coriolanus, Sope Dirisu spoke to me all about striking the right balance with the character.
Sope is taking on the role of Coriolanus whose name is Caius Martius until he leads the Roman armies to victory and his success leads him to being given the name Coriolanus. “Caius Martius aspires to all things Roman, lots of people go from being an amazing soldier to being an amazing politician and will rule Rome for a year which is seen as a possibility for Caius halfway through the play,” Sope tells me. Pushed by his controlling mother, he attempts to earn the votes of the masses in to secure the powerful position in office, but the public refuse to support him, spiralling him into an angry riot.
“We are likening him to an athlete,” he said. “Those charismatic athletes like David Beckham for England or Ronaldo for Portugal, these people that are at the foremost of their disciplines on an international level, so within the world of the play this guy is internationally renowned for being one of the greatest soldiers alive, but he is also a meritocratic, he believes that everything should be earned, nothing should be given for free.” This proves to be his major downfall with the poorest of society, as he has nothing but contempt for them. Also, despite being such a valiant soldier and the epitome of masculinity, he is a real mummy’s boy and will do whatever she asks.
Shakespeare is challenging to portray in itself, but taking on the title role is difficult. Coriolanus isn’t displayed as a straightforward character, he is slightly ambiguous in his ways as he doesn’t give it all away at first. “He is really an anti-hero,” said Sope. “He isn’t your Hamlet where everybody is rooting for him from the beginning to the end, and he isn’t Hamlet in the same way that Hamlet and Brutus and Julius Caesar tell you what they’re thinking.” Sope explained that his challenge is to show what he is thinking and finding the balance.
“One of the challenges is keeping him a Shakespearean hero, even though he is often the antagonist of his own story.”
“When I was offered the audition over a year ago, the first thing I did was watch other performances of the role,” Sope explained. “What I found with those actors’ interpretation of the role was that they were really angry. You’ve got very emotionally intense lines so I can see where they were coming from, but for me, I just think he is curious all the time because I think if all you see is anger then you never really understand where it is coming from.” Sope expressed how he is such a big believer that Shakespeare has to be really understandable, so he wanted to get to grips with how the play fits into today. “Democracy is a really big topic in the play and in the last year or so we have had really great examples in the modern day,” he said.
Despite Shakespeare writing these productions hundreds of years ago, their relevance is still so potent in today’s world. “There are healthy forms of democracy, and equally there are poor forms, such as people having a knee-jerk reaction to something they don’t understand and life delivers the consequences after, and that is evident in the play,” Sope explained.
Director Angus Jackson‘s vision is that it isn’t going to be a period dress piece, it is going to be set in the not-so distant future. “There aren’t going to be any satellites because phones kill Shakespeare plays, I mean Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t have happened if he could text her,” laughed Sope. He explained how he really believes the play will allow us to pick out the parallels between our leaders today and the leaders in the play.
Coriolanus is set in early Rome, therefore it will incorporate a different style of design than the three other plays the RSC staged earlier this year. “I think our director has made some really interesting casting decisions as well,” Sope said. “So some of the characters that were originally written as men won’t be performed by men, the two women who are the Tribunes, they’re literally incredible I’ve had such an amazing time working with them and I hope the fun we have in rehearsal translates into the production – they give it a new type of flavour.”
Sope has worked with Shakespeare a lot before, but he describes his time working with the RSC as incredible. “I have always wanted to work here, one of the first few plays I saw here when I was younger was an RSC play,” he said. “The facilities are great, the people are lovely and I really love coming to Stratford-Upon-Avon to be able to focus on the work. I’m just throwing myself into it and enjoying it all.”
Coriolanus opens at the RSC on the 15th of September for a limited run until the 14th of October before transferring to London. Tickets and information can be found here.