Shakespeare’s Least-Loved Play; But This Coriolanus Stands Apart

It’s a shame that Karin Coonrod’s bold and brilliant new production of Coriolanus has been so misunderstood. The director stands virtually alone in refusing to talk down to Shakespeare (and therefore to audiences). She isn’t in the popularizing game. Nor, incidentally, was Shakespeare.

We can say confidently, at least, that Coriolanus is one of his most challenging and least loved of plays. It is liked, but not loved-and in the liking comes a kind of cold awe. It contains no music to enchant us. Shakespeare has given us no sweet, appealing poetry or quotable rhetoric for a reason: Coriolanus is his most purely political play.

It is also a play that always outfoxes us. What do we actually feel about its hero, Caius Martius Coriolanus-Harold Bloom’s “killing machine,” the war leader who would be author of himself, the uncompromising, proud patrician who scorns the people? A near-superman in battle, the hero fatally lacks the politician’s oily arts of expediency. He refuses to “don a gown of humility.” ” Odi profanum vulgus et arceo”-”I loathe the uncouth vulgar mob”-as Horace charmingly put it.

Coriolanus essentially, arrogantly is. He’s a leader sans soul. There’s no inner life in him, no reflectiveness or doubt. Is this what it takes? Is this the way of the world? In Coriolanus, the politicians could care less whether the plebes live or die; all war is meat to them, and looting armies scavenge for scraps like Mother Courage.

Small wonder Brecht adapted Coriolanus. Yet the play can be exploited by both right and left. Brecht saw Coriolanus as a fascist. Nazi Germany saw him as a true leader. Well, they would. But the play is as much about class warfare as the blood of war itself, and Shakespeare’s view of the people is unsparingly clear-eyed. His common man is either a fickle ignoramus or the democratic check to the arrogance of power.

We would expect from Ms. Coonrod the intelligence and clarity she brought to her refreshing readings of Julius Caesar and the rarely performed King John. Her important contribution with Coriolanus is to see that it stands alone and unadorned outside Shakespeare’s history plays. This is a superior production in that sense to the Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus four seasons ago at B.A.M. The prestigious British import turned the demanding political play into a near-Jacobean pageant-the better to tell (or sell) it.

The new production doesn’t dress up Coriolanus with trumpets and drums. The blood of battle is imagined. (And banners are easy.) It dares to mirror Shakespeare’s intention in a near-empty space-and let the austere play speak for itself. The production shall henceforth be known as “The Graffiti Coriolanus,” however. The director allows herself one blatant interpretative touch. As the action progresses, the walls of the simple, bare set are covered with graffiti-the urban babble of protest.

This is a clearly spoken Shakespeare-an admirable achievement of its small ensemble. Christian Camargo’s extraordinary ease with the verse, for example, is formidable: Only inexperience stops his Coriolanus short of the necessary leviathan stature. Coriolanus’ young son, after all, crushes butterflies with his teeth for sport. (Like father, like son.) Jonathan Fried’s appealing Menenius-a shrewd political philosopher and betrayed father-figure to Coriolanus-is most fine. Roberta Maxwell’s Volumnia is Gorgon enough-”Anger’s my meat: I sup upon myself”-and Ms. Maxwell shines particularly in the later, near-touching scenes.

The wonderful second act is built on the Spartan bricks of the first. From Coriolanus’ banishment by the people and his chilling “There is a world elsewhere!”, the production takes flight to its end. Here we have a warrior who believes in absolute truth, and he betrays himself twice over. Banished from Rome and rejected by the people, he vengefully defects to the enemy without conscience. About to destroy his own terrified country, he defects again and makes peace. But peace destroys him. With peace, Coriolanus has been made human.

Who causes the transformation that will lead inevitably to his slaughter? Mother! (Even monsters have mothers.) It’s the most astonishing aspect of the play for me. It could be black comedy (and G.B. Shaw, perverse as usual, saw it as the greatest of Shakespeare comedies). Mother taught her only son Coriolanus everything she knows. As Anthony Clare declared, “His bravery was sucked from her in her milk.” But the aptly named Volumnia is now begging him on her knees “like one i’th’ stocks” to save Rome, and the key scene contains a rare stage direction: “After holding Volumnia by the hand in silence.”

The heroic warrior, the terror of the world, takes his mother’s hand! And, relenting, cries:

O, mother, mother!

What have you done? Behold, the

heavens do ope,

The gods look down, and this un

natural scene

They laugh at. O my mother, mother!

O!

You have won a happy victory to

Rome;

But for your son, believe it, O!

believe it,

Most dangerously you have with

him prevail’d,

If not most mortal to him. But let

it come.

Peace will come and pitiful death will follow in a fever of vengeance. “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” goes the hysterical cry. Baited as “a boy,” Coriolanus embraces his own death. “Alone I did it!” he protests, protesting too much. “Boy!” The masses who acclaimed Coriolanus as their savior now destroy him. The mob tears him to pieces. And the mortal enemy, Aufidius, a lesser man, stands over his body.

There are no mighty tributes paid to him at the end, only mundane, political words in noble memory of the man who “widow’d and unchilded many a one.” There are those who miss a more moving closure-wishing even heroic, monstrous Coriolanus a more traditional send-off, like Hamlet. But princely Hamlet is thought and poetry personified, whereas Coriolanus lived in the real world. The memorable achievement of the new production is to have suggested the present in the past, finding the real world in the here and now.