William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, one of his last plays, is sometimes considered one of the most inaccessible. Yet it is fascinating for what it implies about power dynamics, political supremacy, and the abilities of human beings to perform some roles exceptionally and others abysmally. In a spectacular and gripping modern production directed by Michael Sexton and presented by the Red Bull Theater, the obscure character of Coriolanus becomes more viscerally realized and empathetic through the expressive largesse of talent displayed by Dion Johnstone in the title role of the Roman dynamo and intrepid military warrior.
The story, based on historical record, follows the prodigious military prowess of Caius Martius Coriolanus (the stunning-looking and perfect Roman patrician soldier is portrayed with taciturn grace and stature by Johnstone) after he rids Rome of the Tarquins and enters into a different arena (politics) from his earlier one (the military). As the play begins, we understand that Coriolanus is a man of precision, order, and obedience. He expresses his disgust at the starving commoners who are at the point of riot protesting that they have no free access to Roman stores of grain. Coriolanus rebukes them to his friends: The commoners/plebeians have not served in the military or contributed to Roman productivity, so in his estimation they have done little for their handouts and should go hungry.
Only after their threats of violence and revolution become manifest does senator-patrician and Coriolanus’s friend Menenius Agrippa relent (Patrick Page is electric as the forceful diplomat ever wise to ascertain the upper hand with aplomb and humility). Agrippa provides access to the grain, appointing two Roman tribunes, Sicinius Velutus (Stephen Spinella is unctuously treacherous) and Junius Brutus (Merritt Janson portrays the sinister double-dealing politico with smiles and verbal stabs when Coriolanus’s back is turned) to be the commoners’ direct representatives.
During this tumultuous period, Menenius Agrippa has kept the peace and entrusted the citizenry to Velutus’s and Brutus’s care. He mollifies Coriolanus’s attitude with smooth negotiating and politicking and we appreciate his soft heart for the commoners, which is contrasted with Coriolanus’s unsympathetic harshness; he would appear to let the rabble starve rather than waste resources on undeserving persons. Coriolanus’s is a stunning attitude and it has the bad ring of those politicians in recent years who have eviscerated social programs because the poor are “lazy” and seniors shouldn’t receive “entitlements.” However, underneath Coriolanus’s personality there is a logic and rationality for his behavior, beautifully suggested by the director and Johnstone.
In the tragedy of his protagonist Coriolanus, Shakespeare identified the principal conflict and main theme of the play. There is a strained conflict of diverse needs and values between the classes, which must be resolved economically and philosophically or the supposed egalitarian system that is set up will be violated. Second, there is a potential pathway to corruption for those appointed as liaisons to foster communication and understanding between the elites and the poor. For his part Martius Caius Coriolanus views the wider picture on Rome’s horizons and understands the necessity of security provided by an effective military that should be liberally rewarded. He is puritan in his belief that one works for one’s bread.
For their part, the hungry commoners see the full grain stores as their due as Roman citizens. They are the unwitting dupes stoked by the nefarious tribunes who abuse their powerful positions. Velutus and Brutus are intentionally ineffective as ombudsmen, negotiators of peace and understanding; they create no bridges, but further widen the breach between elites and poor. Thus, the commons remain unaware of Coriolanus’s wishes that they partake in military service. Reinforced by the manipulations of the self-serving tribunes, the commoners only perceive Coriolanus’s proud outer appearance and carriage. They overlook the protection from invasion and the supreme sacrifice he makes putting his life on the line for them. In a willful expedience created, imagined, and encouraged by the tribunes, the rabble believe Coriolanus uncaring and elitist, when he is actually shedding blood for their safety.
In the subsequent scenes we see that Coriolanus is a soldier, a man of action, not a social climber or gadfly as are the tribunes. He is happier on the battlefield, as he proves when he valiantly overcomes the Volscians by taking the initiative to enter their city. There, he overthrows the defenders, then, exhausted, joins his commander Cominius (a very fine portrayal by Aaron Krohn) to battle the rest of the Volscian forces. In the process he meets up with dastardly opponent Aufidius (Matthew Amendt is ferocious, whimsical and enthralling as the wily general seeking his advantage). Coriolanus and Aufidius enter into edge-of-your-seat mortal combat (kudos to fight director Thomas Schall for this incredibly staged event). But Aufidius will have to die another day. His Volscian soldiers drag him away because surely Coriolanus would have killed him.
Coriolanus returns home to praying, loving wife (Rebecca S’manga Frank) and mother Volumnia (Lisa Harrow). Frank’s and Harrow’s portrayals are deeply spun, heartfelt, and profound. And once more Caius Martius, awarded the name Coriolanus by Cominius and encouraged by Agrippa, is a hero feted and praised. And then his downfall rushes up to meet him. Believing his talents on the field can equal his talents in civil government, the leaders suggest he become a consul.
Some men can do only one thing brilliantly, unable to carry their skills over to an area that requires entirely different attributes, acumen, and talents. Coriolanus rejects the idea; he would rather be a killing machine than a political hack, as the latter requires sociability, mendacity, affability, and silver-tongued powers of articulation and persuasion, all of which he lacks. He also lacks the political will and ambition to rise in such a role to work amongst the very people he has disdained, the commoners and their tribunes.
Though his mother persuades him to assume the consulship and he reluctantly tries, ultimately he fails. Totally out of his depth with double-dealers, more honest with a sword and forward confrontation, he falls prey to their prestidigitations. Not only do they foil Coriolanus’s consulship by talking up his “violation of citizens’ rights,” they demand he be banished from Rome as an unfit citizen. It is a magic act the tribunes have deceptively fabricated with the unwitting help of Coriolanus’s forthright, austere personality and lack of political skill and will.
What the director and ensemble so effectively and beautifully reveal in this very powerful production is how political self-interest and keenly corrupt Machiavellian acts often go too far. Not only have the tribunes manipulated themselves into a ditch with no escape route, they have put all of Rome in jeopardy. By not fulfilling their own social contract, failing to create a “meeting of the minds” between the commoners and Coriolanus, their thrill in his banishment becomes their song of woe. In disgust, Coriolanus embraces his role as killing machine once more; it is what he does best. He “banishes Rome” and aligns himself with his old enemy Aufidius and the Volscians. Together they will wipe out Rome and those corrupt leaders who would foment such double dealings out of selfishness and ambition.
I cannot bestow enough praise on this thrilling production whose harmonies of spectacle, action, staging, lighting, costume, and set design so form a complete whole that I cannot easily imagine another Coriolanus as facilely driven, yet sparely, acutely executed. The audience and cast interaction flows freely; our engagement is moment-to-moment with the actors who use the central platform with grace, keeping in mind its boundaries. The bits of humor in this updated version of Coriolanus are likewise thoughtful, provocative, and joyfully conceived.
This is a true treasure of a presentation. It elucidates some of the enigma behind the character of Coriolanus with tension as the director, Johnstone, Page, Harrow, Krohn, Fine, Spinella, Janson and Amendt so carefully and vitally tease his truth and tragedy into the light of day. Just great!
Coriolanus presented by Red Bull Theater has one intermission. It will be at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York City until November 20. You may click for tickets HERE.