By William Shakespeare
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
This is the third time I’ve seen Coriolanus. Each time, some dramaturg or literary associate has written that it’s (one of) Shakespeare’s least performed plays, and that it is undeservedly neglected. They also way that it’s one of his greatest plays, and that it’s misunderstood. That doesn’t seem to hold in Washington, where it’s holding its own in terms of productions, and where it has some ardent champions—and is playing to sizeable audiences.
The problem with the play is that Coriolanus is a seriously flawed human being. He’s a protagonist, not a hero. And that’s disconcerting. At the Talk Back with the cast after the play (see below), there was considerable discussion of who the “bad guy” was. Whether David Muse intended it or not (and apparently he didn’t), most of us seemed to think that the Tribunes were the bad guys. They are a pair of unctious, oily, conniving politicians who scheme to remove Coriolanus from power. They succeed, much to their chagrin in the second act. And yet they don’t get their comeuppance. Diane D’Aquila suggested that there is no good guy, no bad guy: that’s part of Shakespeare’s genius. He simply paints life as he sees it. Patrick Page mad a similar point, comparing Shakespeare with Tony Kushner, as a stand-in for an American equivalent. (I thought that apropos, given how Shakespearean I think Angels in America is.) Page pointed out that you can guess what Kushner’s politics are, where he stands on issues, who he voted for. You can’t glean any of that from Shakespeare. That’s why so many people can overlay their own agendas on his works. (Coriolanus has been a favorite of both right- and left-leaning directors.)
Coriolanus’s problem is that he’s extremely good at what he does. And he knows that he’s good, and there’s a natural and honest arrogance that comes of that. He also knows that he has no interest in being Consul, but he’s bullied into it by his mother, and that sets his downfall in motion. Coriolanus can’t make the compromises necessary to follow that path to success. Page managed to bring out the vulnerability in the character, which, in the end, makes him a sympathetic character. Page also makes the most of the wonderfully biting, sarcastic line in the play, which is a veritable treasure trove of wit. In that sense, it’s extremely modern—sort of like a nasty Oscar Wilde (or perhaps like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf). I also liked the “humility” scene, where Coriolanus is asking the people for their voice, and falls into a carnival barker’s patter (which really tells you just what he thinks of the whole process).
D’Aquila’s Volumnia was wonderful: she’s ruthless and bloodthirsty, and find yourself wondering (and perhaps fearing) what she would have been if she had been a man in that era. She, along with Coriolanus, had one of my favorite lines in the play. At the end of the first act, as Coriolanus goes into exile, the set opens upstage, and he walks into bright white lights and billowing fog. After a wonderful, brief speech of vituperation, he says, “There are worlds elsewhere.” And in the second act, after Volumnia confronts the tribunes for their dastardly behaviour, she upbraids Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife for her tears, and says, “Exit as I do, in anger, Juno-like.” And in that moment, she is as terrifying and as daunting as Juno herself would be.
Reginald Andre Jackson was fine as Aufidius, but he didn’t match Page in grandeur. (I think Derrick Lee Weeden would have been a better match.) And it intrigues me that this is at least the second time that an African-American actor has been cast as Aufidius. That was true of the STC production over a decade ago, and I’m pretty sure it was true of the RSC production that was in town more recently. I wonder if there’s some tradition along those lines.
The final scene was particularly chilling, and it gave me a sense of deja vu. Coriolanus’s corpse lies center stage, and the Voscians fade away, and the set opens up as it did at the end of the first act. Then Martius comes forward, out of the bright white light and fog, salutes his father, and picks up the knife that killed him. He slices his palm with the knife, smears his cheeks with his own blood and calmly walks back upstage into the light. And that bit of business—the young song daubing himself with his own blood like warpaint—is extremely familiar. I’m sure I’ve seen some other production, perhaps of some other play, end the same way. I just can’t remember what. It might have been one of the earlier versions of Coriolanus I saw. Or perhaps Timon of Athens at WSC? In any case, it’s the sort of thing that sends chills up your spine.
* * * * *
I stayed for the Talk Back with the cast after the show. There was one really obnoxious guy down in the front row who kept going on and on about how awful it was to cut Shakespeare. “Who could presume?” While Patrick Page agreed that this guy’s favorite line—which was abbreviated—was one of the great lines, he put the guy in his place when the latter claimed that they didn’t cut Shakespeare in London. Both Page and Lise Bruneau made the point that they had never seen, or been in, any Shakespeare production that hadn’t been trimmed. And Page pointed out that if they had done the full, four-hour version of Coriolanus, the audience would probably have been very thin. Drew Lichtenburg, the Literary Associate who was moderating the discussion, finally managed to stifle the guy in a fairly diplomatic fashion.
One of the topics that the audience and the actors kept coming back to was the question, who is the bad guy? I think this production paints the tribunes as the bad guys, but listening to the actors—in particular to Derrick Weeden, who played Sicinius—it seems that that wasn’t really David Muse’s intention. Weeden described the conspiratorial dialogues between the tribunes as being more about the musical shape of the production (emphasizing the quietness, compared to the many loud crowd scenes), and giving a sense of intimacy, when the actors are standing in the middle (or at the side) of a fairly large, empty stage.
One question was how the actors managed to keep up their energy, especially given that the first act ran ninety minutes. Weeden said part of that came from having to keep on your toes, since the other actors would vary their performances from night to night: saying a line more quietly, or more loudly, or doing a piece of business slightly differently. (I remember a talk back after the production of The General Inspector, where Nancy Robinette talked about how differently the lead played things from night to night. “He’s never jumped up on the couch before.”) Page said that a lot of the energy comes from the audience. He said he had noticed, peripherally, that someone in the front row was leaning forward during one of his scenes, and he drew energy from that. He also said that when someone laughs at a good line, a subtle line (not a fart joke, he said), that it helps. It shows that the audience is intelligent (or at least someone is), and so you play to them. Props to me: he said that this happened early in the production tonight, and I was one of only a couple of people who laughed at a bilingual pun that Cominius made while trying to calm the plebeians down:
Because I am the store-house and the shop
Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood,
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o’ the brain;
Sicular, playing Menenius, even stopped and winked after “heart” (which in French is cœur).
It turns out that Weeden and Steve Pickering had both played Coriolanus before. Page said that they both generally refused to give him any suggestions. Weeden explained that he wanted Page to see only Sicinius when they looked each other in the eye, and Page acknowledged that there was merit in that point of view.
|Caius Martius, later Coriolanus
|Volumnia, his mother
|Virgilia, his wife
|Young Martius, his son
|Menenius Agrippa, senator and friend to Coriolanus
|Cominius, consul and Roman general
|Junius Brutus, tribune of the people
|Sicinius Velutus, tribune of the people
||Derrick Lee Weeden
||Lise Bruneau, Reginald Andre Jackson, Michael Santo
|Valeria, a noblewoman
|Tullus Aufidius, a general of the Volsian army
||Reginald Andre Jackson
|Citizens, Soldiers, Attendants,
Messengers, Heralds, Aediles
|John Bambery, Jeffrey Baumgartner, Philip Dickerson,
Avery Glymph Chris Hietikko, Jacqui Jarrold,
Joe Mallon, Glen Pannell, Max Reinhardsen,
Brian Russell, Jjana Valentiner, Jaysen Wright
||Blythe R. D. Quinlan
|Voice and Text Coach
|Production Stage Manager
|Assistant Stage Manager
||Hannah R. O’Neil