Terrorism. Abuse. Suicide. Murder. If you’re looking for a cheery show at the Fringe, then David Leddy’s Coriolanus Vanishes, showing at the Traverse Theatre, isn’t it.
This ultra-loose interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the downfall of a Roman general is both thematically and theatrically dark, with exquisite use made of lighting and colours. It focuses the audience’s attention on a hand, on a face, whilst the rest of the set remains in darkness. Irene Allan is the only person on stage and she dominates it, switching from happy to sad to demonic in the blink of an eye. Allan plays Chris – a bisexual character of unspecified gender whom this reviewer interpreted as male, but who could just as validly be interpreted as female or non-binary, since Chris is played by a woman in this production, whereas previously the role was played by a man. Chris leaves their loving wife and their adopted, troublesome child to live with a man. Casting a woman in this role – especially one as talented as Irene Allan – is a fascinating choice.
Shakespeare’s Roman general has been reimagined as a Machiavellian businessperson who has no scruples about selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, even though “they beheaded more people last year than ISIS”. The play critiques Britain’s friendship with Saudi Arabia, implying that the wave of terrorist attacks in the 21st century is a result of capitalist greed – or, as Chris puts it, “the company doesn’t want peace, it wants profits”.
More than politics, though, this play is about Chris’ profound unhappiness with life. Traumatised by childhood abuse, they find it impossible to ever be truly happy, and Irene Allan expertly conveys Chris’ despair, frustration, and rage. At times speaking softly into a microphone, at others viciously screaming at the audience, Allan’s performance is volatile, unpredictable and utterly believable. The stage lighting changes with Chris’ mood, with heavy use made of dark, heavy blue and bright, artificial orange. At one point Chris shines a harsh white light directly on the audience; at other times they wield a lightsaber-esque shaft of light, gripping it like the glowing oar of a boat in a sea of darkness.
Less successful is the occasional use of contemporary, jaunty pop music to transition scenes. Although no doubt deliberately intended as a sharp contract, it is too jarring with the atmosphere of the rest of the play. In addition, although there is merit in shining a light on Britain’s double-standard when it comes to Saudi Arabia, this aspect of the play takes up time that could have been spent peering deeper into Chris’ dark psychology. A lot of material no doubt had to be cut to fit the show into its 75-minute time slot.
Still, the beautiful staging and Irene Allan’s stellar performance make Coriolanus Vanishes a must-see at the Fringe. Although Allan is the only actor, she makes you feel like you intimately know not just Chris but also all the other characters. By the devastating ending, you might wish you hadn’t got to know them.
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
3-5, 7-12, 14-19, 21-26 August
Image: Fire Exit
DISCLAIMER: A previous version of this review, published on the 4th August 2018, referred to the character of Chris using male pronouns only. After consulting with the theatre company this has been changed to reflect the ambiguous nature of the character and the validity of many different interpretations. This is in no way reflective of the writer nor this publication, which has a history of celebrating gender diversity and supporting the LGBT+ community. The Student apologises for any offence or confusion this may have caused.