What would it have been like to have seen Red Bull’s blazing production of Coriolanus before our national day of reckoning? Could watching this painful and bloody tragedy of egotism and political betrayal in 2016 have been experienced, before the fateful election, as a muted triumph, in which female resistance manages in the end to save civilization from masculine violence? I suppose I’ll never know, though I’ll bet some of you reading this review saw this show in October…
There’s a moment near the center of the action in which the citizens, having more or less willingly given the war hero their voices and their red-colored ballots, realize, with a little help from the slightly smarmy Tribunes, that they can change their minds. They rebel, and they retract their support. Sounds like a good idea!
Probably the most unexpectedly powerful performance of the night was Broadway vet Patrick Page as Menenius. In a dapper suit with tie and suspenders, often sipping a tumbler of bourbon, he played the Senator with old school Southern charm, reminding at least some of the older members of the audience (like me) of the days when white men with accents were the face of American liberal politics.
Another surprise was the Rebecca Franks’s charismatic and quiet Virgilia, the hero’s wife. Tall and fierce, she was upstaged by tiger mother Volumnia but not as conclusively as can often be the case. Her silence, juxtaposed with her mother in law’s volubility, suggested a different kind of bond. With her husband, kisses were a silent eloquence.
Dion Johnstone’s excellent Coriolanus showed us no visible wounds, even while wearing the track suit and red baseball hat “of humility,” but his powerful body, black, beautiful, and finally devoured by hungry Volscians, was the star of the night. Bloodied before the gates of Corioles in act 1, when he sacked the city, and again in act 5, when its angry citizens took their final revenge, he performed towering male violence held tightly close and closed, unable to open himself up, afraid of the people and (of course) of his mother.
How did Volumnia beat her son down before the gates of Rome, after he’d rejected his comrades, wife, and son? Partly, as Lisa Harrow’s performance showed, by wearing him down: her speech to him was long, varied, a bit suffocating. She would not let him turn away, and then when he did turn, she kept talking until he turned back.
The famous stage direction, in which the warrior “holds her by the hand, silent,” marks the hero’s surrender to his mother and the preservation of Roman civilization. It wasn’t perfectly staged, since he had to walk too far downstage to reach her hand, but the next moment, in which he knelt before her, still holding her hands, was devastating:
O mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory for Rome,
But for your son, believe it, O, believe it
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed
If not most mortal to him. (5.3)
She stood stoic but his pain hit me in my seat against the back wall of the theater.
The set was festooned with ballots and balloons, dropped when Coriolanus was presented to the people and popped loudly when the riots began. The last painful set of electoral props for November 2016?
I’m left thinking what I always think about in Shakespeare’s Roman plays: what is the human and bodily cost of political ambition? Who does the wolf love? (2.1).
I also wonder today about the Tribunes, Brecht’s Marxist heroes, enemies of the aristocracy. Is this play about the failures of democracy in governing a republic? Does that remind us of anything we might have experienced recently?
What will the monument to Volumnia look like? Will she stand beneath it, thinking of her dead son?
But more than anything I’m left today replaying one pure irresponsible stage moment of anti-democratic rage, when a nameless citizen jumped up onto center stage and hammered the blunt end of a sledge into a ballot box. It took a few hard blows, but she scattered the red cards of endorsement all over the stage. Votes don’t always last.
What is the city but the people? (3.1).