Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus has not been performed at Free Shakespeare in the Park in 40 years as it is difficult to keep an audience interested in this unfamiliar play – and the title character becomes more unlikable as the play goes on. It has an unsympathetic hero with a fatal flaw that is arrogance and hubris. Though his mother Volumnia (one of the great Shakespearean parts for an actress) is equally imperious and proud, she knows how to play the game which her son does not. Unlike Shakespeare’s other tragedies, this play really doesn’t have any subplots and seems too obsessively concerned with the journey of its unpleasant protagonist. He has also been called a man-child as he seems to be tied to his mother’s apron strings as well as having little or no censor on his thoughts, like a child who does not get his way having a temper tantrum.
Some productions like Trevor Nunn’s production in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1972 have used gorgeous pageantry to differentiate the Romans from their enemy the Volscians. Others like the National Theatre of Great Britain production at the Old Vic in 1971 had a titanic performance by the young Antony Hopkins in a vigorous staging by the directors of the Berliner Ensemble modeled on Brecht’s version of the play. Ralph Fiennes’s 2011 film version with himself in the title role and a cast that included Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain updated the play to the present. As the second offering for Free Shakespeare in the Park this summer, Daniel Sullivan, most often associated with directing new plays to Pulitzer Prizes, has now directed it at the Delacorte Theater as his 11th Shakespeare play for The New York Shakespeare Festival, only the third time the play has ever been seen on its stage.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future with a massive corrugated metal set by Beowulf Boritt surrounded by the rubble of war (think Mad Max), the production has a sturdy but rather stolid performance by British actor Jonathan Cake in the title role, previously seen in New York as Anthony in Anthony and Cleopatra (2014), as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (2013), and as Iachimo in Lincoln Center Theater’s Cymbeline (2007). The cast also includes Kate Burton as his mother Volumnia in one of her finest performances to date, as well as character actors Louis Cancelmi, Teagle F. Bougere, Enid Graham, Jonathan Hadary and Tom Nelis. Though the political aspects of the play showing how a democratic populace can be swayed by the words of manipulative legislators and orators to their detriment, Sullivan’s famed talent for invention seems to have deserted him this time around. The play seems to be too much of the same thing throughout its almost three hour running time.
The play begins to riots in Rome as the plebeians (common people) are short on the grain that the patricians (aristocrats) are hoarding. They meet senator Menenius Agrippa (Bougere) and general Caius Martius (Cake)- Menenius calms the rioters, while Marcius’ open contempt only makes things worse saying that they are not worthy of the grain due to their lack of military service. The stand-off is interrupted when news arrives that Rome is threatened by an invasion by their enemy the Volscians; however he has incensed the tribunes Sicinius Velutus (Hadary) and Junius Brutus (Enid Graham in a role usually played by a man) who have been chosen to speak for the plebes. Martius leaves under the command of Cominius as right-hand man. Martius’ contingent attacks the Volscian city of Corioli and he is triumphant, also defeating their leader Tillus Aufidius (Cancelmi), his blood enemy, in hand-to-hand combat.
As a result of his victory, Caius Martius is given the honorary title of Coriolanus. His mother Volumnia spurs him on to apply to be Consul of Rome, the highest elected official position. Although chosen by the patricians, Coriolanus must receive the approval of the plebes. Despite his contempt for them, he makes a speech that placates the majority, but alienates others. Although he receives their verbal acclimation, the tribunes declare him an enemy of the people and incense the crowd. Coriolanus goes before the populace a second time to make peace with them but cannot control his scorn. Ultimately, he is banished from Rome and leaves to join with the Volscians.
Accepted by Tullus Aufidius in the Volscian city of Antium as a brother, Coriolanus wants his revenge on Rome and helps the Volscians plan an attack on the city. Back in Rome, the self-serving tribunes celebrate with the populace over his departure. However, they cannot keep the panic from spreading with the news that the Volscians are at the gates. Menenius is sent to mollify Coriolanus but is rejected. However, when his mother, wife and young son arrive to entreat him, he is moved to make a peace agreement. On his return to Antium, Tullus, filled with a sense of betrayal, instigates his men to kill him.
At six foot, three inches, Cake is always the tallest man on stage and his powerful physique makes him a credible warrior. He seems to glory in his character’s blood lust and enjoyment of battle. However, he can’t compensate for the fact that Shakespeare’s play gives him almost no soliloquies in order to explain his motivations. Except for the over-weening pride of his mother Volumnia we learn nothing of what has shaped his life or his beliefs. Cake plays Coriolanus rather low key so that he does not fill the stage as he ought to with his emotions.
Giving possibly her strongest work to date, Burton as Volumnia is more impressive than Cake. She gives a layered performance which demonstrates how she has been successfully playing the game needed to remain a respected patrician. We also see how she has always been able to manipulate her son even though on the battlefield he is in his element. As Tullus Aufidius, Cancelmi is equally warlike but also equally unsubtle. However, Cake gets much able support from the Roman characters. Bourgere is a nuanced Menenius Agrippa and we understand why he is a well-loved senator. Nelis as General Cominus is low key, keeping his emotions in check, and plays it close to the vest. Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham as the two self-serving tribunes demonstrate the dangers of demagoguery in a democratic society. In her few scenes, Nneka Okafor is forceful as Coriolanus’ wife but Shakespeare gives her less to do than the wives in Julius Caesar, a similar play about democracy and war.
Although the production has a huge cast of 30, the crowd scenes often look underpopulated. It is hard to see as a threatening riot a mob of only seven men and women when facing four army officers and senators. While Boritt’s large set is initially impressive, the many times it needs to rotate between scenes to end up looking pretty much like it did before become a little tiresome. However, Kaye Voyce has gotten the post-apocalyptic clothes exactly right. As usual in recent years, the sound design at the Delacorte (here created by Jessica Paz) is crystal clear. Steve Rankin’s fight direction is fierce but the battle scenes are not allowed to go on too long.
While Shakespeare’s Coriolanus has a great deal to warn us about as a cautionary tale, it is also not as deep or as poetic a play as his major tragedies. Daniel Sullivan’s production for Free Shakespeare in the Park is fine with the surface values of this historical tragedy but less so with creating the subtext of the story. In his second time around as its titular hero, Jonathan Cake is excellent as the brutal warrior, not so accomplished as the public man wrestling with his own demons.
Coriolanus (through August 11, 2019)
Free Shakespeare in the Park
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan
Free tickets distributed at Noon at the Delacorte Box Office to those on prior line, Downtown Distribution Lottery at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place, or by Mobile Ticket Lottery powered by TodayTix at http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission