Director Angus Jackson’s rendition of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus will be the fourth in the series of plays depicting the decaying Roman Empire.
It is part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Rome season this autumn.
In his official RSC debut Sope Dirisu takes on the fiery main role of warmonger Coriolanus in this tragedy about the Roman general’s rise and fall.
He spoke to Socialist Worker about a production that’s riddled with relevant debates around the power of the state and the people.
In his acting history, Dirisu has embraced political messages. “I love the pressure, the responsibility of the story I’m telling and I think that only enhances your performance and makes you more accurate,” he said.
One of his past roles was as Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) in One Night in Miami at the Donmar Warehouse, London.
For Dirisu, the arts are an important way of exploring the social issues we face today.
“Sometimes the news makes me switch off from the world because it’s all so depressing,” he explains.
“But by entertaining and challenging people at the same time, I feel as an actor that you’re holding the audiences’ hands.
“You’re leading them through a discussion, through a play, through a world that can be less abrasive.”
Arguments about democracy, grassroots movements and the strength of community are interwoven throughout the play.
Dirisu says one of the greatest aims for the rehearsal process is to ensure that these arguments are clearly conveyed alongside the storytelling.
“The first scene opens with the citizens and the population in complete disarray,” he explains.
“But by the end or even middle of the play we see the power of the people, they’re all pulling together in the same direction.”
He likens it to the unity seen after the Grenfell Tower fire and for Jeremy Corbyn in the general election.
And Dirisu is aware that this is encouraging people to look for alternatives beyond parliamentary politics. “People are no longer satisfied being pedestrians in the system,” he said.
“We’ve got amazing people like the rapper Akala, who are saying okay the election didn’t actually go our way, but that doesn’t mean we should stop our efforts.”
Coriolanus’ conflicted character is many-sided. He’s a man merely performing his duty, coaxed into unwanted leadership by his mother, yet holds such disdain for the people he fights for.
But ultimately Dirisu and the RSC will leave Shakespeare’s story in the audience’s hands to draw their own conclusions.
As Dirisu said, “We’ve not come here saying that people should be leaving the theatre thinking a certain way.
But we want people to re-evaluate what side of the fence they sit on and why.”
15 September until 14 October, Royal Shakespeare Theatre,Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BB.
6-18 November, The Barbican, London EC2Y 8DS.