Coriolanus is one of the few Shakespearean plays that I had never seen or read, and I had heard that this production by Shakespeare and Company, which is a revival from last season, was terrific. Armed with my trusty Arden Shakespeare, I ventured forth to learn more about Caius Martius Coriolanus, a warrior from the early days of the Republic of Rome, circa 494 BCE.
While ancient Italian politics are not my field of expertise, Shakespeare once again does what he does best and creates in the title character a man so completely human that he belongs to the human race, not to any particular time and place in our history. The Bard is ably assisted by Dan McCleary in the title role, by Tina Packer’s masterful direction, by the minimal and functional set by Rachel Nemec, and by the superb lighting design of Michael Giannitti.
Actually, it is darned difficult to single out specific members of this team of theatre professionals because there is not a weak link in the chain. McCleary is playing the lead, but the nine other actors who play all the other roles, are equally excellent. My crush on Jonathan Epstein was in no way dampened by the opportunity to see him shirtless, nor was my admiration for his acting lessened as he tackled the cold blooded Volscian General, Tullus Aufidius and an amusing Roman plebian in turn.
I did not see Coriolanus last summer in the Stables Theatre at The Mount, but I cannot imagine it being nearly as wonderful anywhere but in the new Founder’s Theatre. I had been in the building once before in 1998 to see Vikki True as Sophie Tucker. Then it was obviously a big, ugly, old gymnasium with a stage stuck on one end. Now it is one of the most comfortable and flexible performance spaces in this country, let alone in this county. I am perhaps prejudiced because it reminds me strongly of a performance space at my college, but that was a good theatre and this is a great one. The bench seating is VERY comfortable, which is a good thing when you are being asked to sit through three hours of ancient Italian politics and war.
If I were you I would not worry about the Romans and the Volscians at all. War is war and people are people. Not much has changed in the nearly 500 years since Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus. This is not a play about ancient times but a play about one man who cannot get it right. In the course of the play Coriolanus alienates his mother, his wife, his son, the man who has been mentor and father figure to him, the entire population of Rome, and the Volscian army. Every time he opens his mouth he firmly inserts his foot and seems incapable of pulling it free. He is an excellent soldier and skilled warrior, and because of this the Romans try to elevate him to statesman. The Peter Principle kicks in and Coriolanus is soon banished from Rome and fighting for the Volscians – until he ticks them off too and they murder him. Hands up if you know someone just like him. I had a conversation with a friend just this morning in which she described the same traits in her nine year old son.
Aufidius describes him thus in Act IV, scene vii:
“First he was
A noble servant to them; but he could not
Carry his honours even: whether ’twas pride,
Which out of daily fortune ever taints
The happy man; whether defect of judgment,
To fail in the disposing of those chances
Which he was lord of; or whether nature,
Not to be other than one thing, not moving
From the casque to the cushion, but commanding peace
Even with the same austerity and garb
As he controll’d the war; but one of these–
As he hath spices of them all,”
Coriolanus is not an easy play and it is not a happy play. You must go prepared to think, but it will be well worth your while. There is plenty of mindless entertainment in the world. Shakespeare & Company is offering you a chance to expand your mind while filling your soul with a completely integrated evening of theatre.
The Shakespeare and Company (413-637-3353) production of Coriolanus runs through July 13 at the new Founder’s Theatre, 70 Kemble Street (Rt. 7A) in Lenox. The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission. Suitable for teens with some background in Shakespeare, but not for younger children. Battle scenes are depicted and stage blood is used.