Commonwealth Shakespeare 2012 Presents Coriolanus : Part 2

Ok, now that you’ve heard the story of how I got there, let’s talk about the show.  It should be noted that other than my introduction to the play via the recent Ralph Fiennes movie, I don’t have much detailed knowledge of the little things.

Taken to an extreme, it’s hard to explain Coriolanus to someone without sounding like a punchline — “This big bad war hero declares war on Rome and promises to burn it to the ground, until his mother comes and lays the guilt trip on him and makes him promise to play nice.”  Of course the interesting bits are in how we get there, and in why this can happen like it does.  The Fiennes’ movie (with Vanessa Redgrave as the mom) had some pretty deep and dark emotional baggage.  This one felt like it was playing more for the comedy angle.

The scenery is plain, wooden, with a burnt-out feeling to it.  At first I think it conjures up a little too much of a pastoral / foresty vibe rather than the industrial sort of thing I was expecting, but not to the point of distraction.  As is typical with all of the staging of their productions, they’ve got stairs to a landing stage left, and a higher balcony stage right.  There’s a main entrance through doors center stage, but that’s typically used for special stage directions – most actors entrances and exits come from the audience.

One of the downsides to seeing the same group perform a different play every year is that their characters begin to blend.  No more is this more true than with their comedian Fred Sullivan, who was so definitive as Nick Bottom that I’ve struggled to hear him portray anything differently since.  He was Brabantio, Parolles, and now Menenius.  I did not yet have an appreciation for how funny Menenius could be!  Fred’s got what I can best describe as a classic Abbott and Costello sense of timing, equally able to deliver the straight line, the zinger, or to burst into over the top ranting and raving.  Every year it’s a treat to watch (and hear) him.

Likewise, Volumnia is portrayed this year by the same woman who did The Countess last year in All’s Well That Ends Well.  I apologize for not having her name handy, I do not have a program with it (I know Fred’s name from years of paying attention to his characters).  I wasn’t sure what to do with Volumnia who is first seen playing guns with Coriolanus’ son, fingers cocked and pointed and shouting “eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh” at the boy as he play stumbles to his death down the stairs.   She is a joyful lady at this point, who doesn’t appear to have a care in the world.  Her son, her wonderful son!  A war hero!  She can’t wait for him to come home, with his shield or on it (no, she doesn’t say that, but that’s the idea).  Her tone doesn’t change in the slightest when she talks about the pride she would have in her son if he died, something that Coriolanus’ wife never quite seems to comprehend.  This was not what I expected.  But, then again, this gave her a great deal of room to change as the play progresses, which I think worked well.

Coriolanus is little more than a boy who I might have seen play Lysander or perhaps Bertram.  When you first see him there’s no “Holy cow he looks like someone you don’t want to mess with,” it’s more like “Ok, they all look like they’re playing army guys and he’s the one playing a little harder and a little better than everybody else.”

And that really becomes the theme of it.  All of Coriolanus’ rants against not wanting to walk among the people really do come off whiny.  When he does finally walk among them he is, to put it quite frankly, a real dick about it.  At “A match, sir. There’s in all two worthy voices
begged. I have your alms: adieu,” he might as well have stuck in a sarcastic, “Oh, yippy for me, more voices! Yay!”

His tone is not reserved for just the people, either.  He talks to his mother that way.  At “Chide me no more….look, I am going” he begins a slow motion walk across the stage.

But then … I’m not sure I completely understand what they were going with in the end, which is why with live theatre I always wish that I had opportunity to watch it a few times.  Coriolanus quite frankly seems scared to be in the camp of Aufidius.  He keeps repeating to them “See?  See what I did?  See how I turn away the messengers?  That’s good, right? You trust me, right?  Menenius over here, I loved him like a father, but I turned him away as well, you saw that Aufidius, didn’t you? Your people saw me do that?”  I mean, the lines are what they are, and I’m sure that he wasn’t adding any (the above are my paraphrases of course), but I thought the idea was that Coriolanus had this aura about him that caused soldiers to flock to him, and here he is constantly needing to ask “You trust me, right? I proved to you that you can trust me?”

The penultimate scene is all about Volumnia, of course, and she knocks it out of the park.  It is a clear case of motherly manipulation over her son – he turns his back on her, tries to hide from her, and then finally flings himself at her feet in tears.  She, of course, comes home in triumph, to a parade with rose petals strewn in her path and the people all shouting her name as the saviour of Rome.

As for Coriolanus’ ending, I still love that whole line about “I fluttered your Volskis at Corioli.  Alone. I did it.  Boy.”  Even though I was not impressed with Coriolanus in any sort of “one man army / robotic war machine” sort of way as the Fiennes did it, this one still managed to make it clear that “I know and you know that I can destroy you, you’ve seen me do it, so you don’t get to call me boy without paying for it.”  Whether that’s true or not, of course, we learn very quickly.

On a somewhat related note (if I point back to my best lines from Coriolanus post), I did not enjoy the whole “common cry of curs” scene.  It was as if somebody said “Ok, this line right here?  Center of the play,  everything revolves around this moment.  So when it comes, make sure it explodes.”  It does, but only to the point where the rest of the crowd on stage seems to be saying “WTF, dude, why are you shouting?”  After delivering the big line so big that the people watching Dark Knight in the nearby movie theatre would have heard it, the followup “I banish you!” was far more pitiful.  Not dripping with disdain like he can’t wait to get out of this place, but more with a resolute “I have to do this, I have choice” resignation.  Wasn’t bad, necessarily, I just didn’t love it.

One last thing.  End of play, Coriolanus’ body has been carried off.  Enter his son, who wordlessly comes over, picks up what I think is his father’s weapon (I couldn’t see well), and then either holds it over his head, or salutes or something.  I really wish I could tell what he’d done, maybe somebody who saw the production can tell me.  But, regardless…..what?  Not really sure what that was all about.  We supposed to treat this as a circle of life / circle of violence message?  Wouldn’t that mean that Coriolanus’ wife now assumes the role of Volumnia, even though we’ve had an entire play to see how different their characters are?  Seemed an interesting choice.  A nice visual to end on, I’m just not completely sure why.