It’s easy to see how Coriolanus became one of the losers in the Shakespearean popularity contest. There’s no comic business, no memorable minor characters, and a noticeable shortage of memorable speeches. (In my copy of Bartlett’s, there’s about one column of quotations from Coriolanus, none of them truly familiar; there are 10 columns of quotations from The Merchant of Venice, 22 columns from Hamlet.) The plot is almost excessively direct, and the proportions are odd–an interminable buildup followed by an offhand, laconic catastrophe.
And those are just the superficial objections. George Bernard Shaw, who found many shortcomings in Shakespeare, was almost dismissive about Coriolanus, demoting the tragedy to “the greatest of Shakespeare’s comedies.” An author, says Shaw, must be judged by those characters into which he puts what he knows of himself, his Hamlets and Macbeths and Lears and Prosperos. To Shaw, Coriolanus was not one of them. Shaw can be extreme in his criticism of Shakespeare, but there’s truth here. On the printed page, and in the only production I’ve managed to see until now, Coriolanus is detached and strangely static. We know nothing at the end that we didn’t know at the beginning. Characters seem to exist only to mouth conventional points of view; everyone makes sense, but somehow no one seems real. It’s Shakespeare as Masterpiece Theatre, beautifully turned out but soulless.
That’s the rap on Coriolanus, and it’s all dead wrong, as you can see abundantly proven in Next Theatre Company’s knockout new production of the play, admirably directed by Eric Simonson. If you know the play, this is a miraculous evening at the theater: dull, foggy scenes are suddenly revealed as vivid; characters that lay dead on the page come to life with force and complexity. If you don’t know Coriolanus, don’t worry. You’ll be riveted by a play that’s exciting, swift, visually spectacular, and emotionally profound–Shakespeare with all of the power and none of the reverence.
Rome, in Simonson’s vision, is a dark place. As the play opens, the lights come up on a brutal brawl, the plebeians cutting down a patrician with hoes and rakes to the sound of shockingly loud electronic music. Food is short in the city, the government is blamed, and the people are on the brink of revolt. The social contract is failing and Rome’s enemies, the Volscians, are on the move again.
A dark place, but a place of extraordinary opportunity if your talents are for hatred, pride, and battle–if, in short, you are Coriolanus. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is a perverse man. He detests the common people for needing him, rejects the praise of his peers, and loves no one so much as his greatest enemy. Next’s Coriolanus, Steve Pickering, captures all that and more. He gives a remarkable performance–austere, precise, persuasive.
And contemporary. This is a Coriolanus that’s been touched by The Heart of Darkness and Vietnam. Early in the play we see Pickering in fatigues and headband, flushed and joyous with combat. We see what the script never tells us: that there’s more to this man than glory and the love of country. He loves battle, loves it for its purity and for the dark forces it rouses in him. When Coriolanus returns home to honors and a nomination for high office, Pickering lets us see terror in his face. He cannot bear to be praised for fear it will weaken him; he cannot risk his purity by accepting the love of the plebeians.
The centerpiece of any Coriolanus is the scene when the hero must display his battle scars to the public, begging that the common folk support him for consul. In Pickering’s performance it’s a dense, beautifully rendered scene. His Coriolanus is a man in agony, humiliated, arrogant, angry, taunting, always on the verge of losing control. The detail of the acting is stunning: Every nuance of the difficult text is worked out, understood, and made part of a fully realized character. This is no figure from a morality play, but a man with an essential mystery at heart.
A key to that mystery is Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, played here by Deanna Dunagan. In virtually any reading of the play Volumnia is a monster, a vampire mother who lives through her son and would rather have him dead with glory than alive without it. But Dunagan pushes her to extremes: This Volumnia will say anything, do anything, to have her way. She goes from imperiousness to tears to rage in the wink of an eye. Coriolanus is tormented by the desire to be only himself, only one thing. His mother shows us why: she is everything and nothing, mere manipulative technique that needn’t even disguise itself.
Volumnia is especially important late in the play. Coriolanus, banished for his hatred of the people, returns to Rome at the head of the Volscian army, and mother and son have their final showdown in the Volscian camp. It’s a difficult scene; it wants to turn into the sort of thing Shaw was criticizing: mere manipulation of the character by external forces, in this case the fact that his mother lives in the city he’s sworn to destroy. Dunagan and Pickering steer clear of the trap, largely thanks to her utter unsentimentality. Words are nothing to her but tools; she couldn’t teach her son that, but she’ll use it to work her will on him no matter what it costs him.
Pickering and Dunagan are outstanding, but they’re hardly alone. There’s not a bad performance in the whole production. There’s Michael McAlister, for instance, as Coriolanus’s friend Menenius. This is the sort of role you wish on your worst enemy: Menenius is onstage incessantly and there’s not a clue in the script as to what makes the man tick. McAlister has put him together as a familiar sort of politician–not a bad man, but one who doesn’t hesitate to do what the situation demands, and one who knows the cost of failure. Leo Harmon and Wayne Brown play the people’s tribunes–Coriolanus’s banishers–as fey old Reds, unmanned by their tenuous hold on power. And as the Volscian general Aufidius, Bruce Orendorf is sleek, world-weary, and a little exotic; he accepts Coriolanus into his camp with what amounts to a love scene, then kills him at the last in a sort of dire ballet.
Everybody is splendid, and splendidly coached. The language of Coriolanus is more difficult than the average Shakespeare, and less familiar, but you wouldn’t know it to hear these clean, lucid readings. Which isn’t to say that this is a poetry reading. Eric Simonson’s direction puts Shakespeare firmly and fairly into the background and the play into the foreground. The visual story telling–the use of gesture, action, and tableaux–is extraordinarily well thought out. The battle scenes are done as slo-mo kung fu, which works well. (My only complaint is that they look a little cautious at times.) Peter Gottlieb’s blood-tinged lighting, Patricia Hart’s gallery of military uniforms, and Evan Chen’s Miami Vice music are all well conceived and executed.
Above all, there’s the situation: A cast of 25 performing at peak form, bringing new life and insight to a great play, in an intimate room where nothing gets lost. Sometimes local theater can seem like an imitation of the real thing. Coriolanus is the real thing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.