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Coriolanus: the despair looks familiar, but doesn’t feel it

by | Aug 26, 2019 | Review | 0 comments

Bard on the Beach is mounting William Shakespeare's Coriolanus

Volumnia (Colleen Wheeler) and Coriolanus (Moya O’Connell) share some difficult family time. (Photo by Tim Matheson)

What’s wrong with this production? For all of its physical beauty, why does it have about as much emotional impact as a video game?

Well, the script is odd to start with — especially for Shakespeare. A warrior to the core, Coriolanus is happiest when slaughtering: near the top of the story, he and his Roman forces wreak bloody havoc on the Volscian army and Coriolanus is made a Roman consul as a reward. But patrician Coriolanus can’t hide his contempt for the common people, “whose breath I hate as the reek o’ the rotten fens.” Coriolanus’s rivals capitalize on his political ineptitude, paint him as a traitor, and have him banished. Coriolanus responds by joining forces with his former nemesis, the Volscian general Aufidius, and turns his fury on Rome.

So Coriolanus is reactive, ego-driven, and extremely dangerous, which might explain why the play, which is rarely produced, has been getting done all over the place lately — in London, Stratford, and New York. Coriolanus is about political chaos — and despair. The central character is Trump in a way, or Bolsonaro, or Farage, so blind to the suffering of others that he is willing to sacrifice multitudes. And, in Shakespeare’s text, the voice of the people provides no counterbalance: the Roman electorate is oppressed but idiotic, easily duped by a self-serving elite.

So, potentially, there’s a lot to chew on.

And, under Dean Paul Gibson’s direction, the physical staging of this Bard on the Beach production is brutally seductive. Gibson opens with a battle. In Jamie Nesbitt’s video, which plays on the vast panels of Pam Johnson’s set, the classical world is on fire. We see giant close-ups of Roman statuary with solar flares threatening to consume them. In Alessandro Juliani’s sound design, distorted trumpets wail and someone — probably Coriolanus — releases heavy sighs.

It’s thrilling — at first. But, in this unfolding, the tale doesn’t add up to much.

And that bring us back to the uniqueness of Coriolanus in the Shakespearean canon. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, scholar Harold Bloom writes, “Inwardness, Shakespeare’s largest legacy to the Western self, vanishes in Coriolanus.” Bloom goes on to say that the title character has “very little mind and no imagination whatsoever.”

How do you make a character with so little interiority accessible — or even interesting? One way would be to make Coriolanus’s refusal to look at himself the point. Which is why I think it was a mistake for Gibson to cast Moya O’Connell, a woman, in the title role.

In the New York mounting— yes, I do read other reviews; they provide helpful context — Jonathan Cake plays Coriolanus as a man trapped in warrior machismo. Cake’s Coriolanus refuses to look inside himself because, like many men, he’s been taught that it’s effeminate to do so. But his armour starts to crack when he feels a homoerotic pull to Aufidius.

I’m not saying that women can’t be warriors, that women aren’t sometimes frightened by self-reflection, or that women shouldn’t play roles typically reserved for men. A female Coriolanus might well exist. But, it seems to me that, in terms of cultural resonance and the play’s psychological dynamics — including those between Coriolanus and his overpowering mother Volumnia — a male Coriolanus would make a lot more sense and have greater impact.

The play itself feels flat to me in another way: Shakespeare’s dismissal of the plebeian citizens and, by implication, democracy. It’s often, if not always, like this with Shakespeare: think of what ninnies the rabble are in Julius Caesar, for instance. This isn’t the production’s fault, but the dynamic is simplistic and flattens the play’s politics.

Still, Gibson’s production is slick and it delivers other pleasures.

I particularly enjoyed Colleen Wheeler’s performance as Volumnia. Wheeler makes the clearest sense of the text and it’s deliciously weird when her Volumnia speaks warmly of the many wounds her daughter has won in battle.

Shawn Macdonald is impressively authoritative as Coriolanus’s defender Menenius — and it’s no knock to say that the spin he puts on the character’s wit sometimes feels a touch gay, when Menenius says of his pal, for instance, “His nature is too noble for the world:/He would not flatter Neptune for his trident.” Marcy T. House plays Aufidius with high stakes and constant calculation.

As Coriolanus, Moya O’Connell sometimes falls into the familiar quicksand (for her) of shouting too much, but she’s bringing something deep to Coriolanus — and I mean that sincerely — even though I was never sure what the terms of the character’s inner world were.

There are also a couple of odd casting choices. Although she delivers a clear reading of the text, Dalal Badr doesn’t have the physical weight or vocal authority to be credible as the general Cominius. And Praneet Akilla is trying too hard as Brutus, one of the scheming tribunes.

On the other hand, Barbara Clayden’s modern costumes are things of beauty — especially the tailored coats worn by Menenius, Volumnia, and Coriolanus’s husband Virgilio.

And, for all of my complaints, the script does include some substantial political content. Early on, one of the Roman citizens sums up the relationship between Rome’s one percent and everybody else: “They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor.”

CORIOLANUS By William Shakespeare. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. A Bard on the Beach production in the Douglas Campbell Theatre (the smaller tent in Vanier Park) on Sunday, August 25. Continues until September 21.Tickets.


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