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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Shakespeare Theatre Company's Coriolanus

I saw Coriolanus last night in Washington, D.C. at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.

It was excellent.

If you are in or near Washington, you must go see it. It runs through 2 June.

The STC’s production of The Winter’s Tale has just begun and I will be seeing it soon. That play runs through June 23.

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I do want to share some thoughts about the play, and what it probably meant to Shakespeare himself.

The whole production is very engaging and full of energy -- and the cast deserves much of the credit for that.

They are all so good.

Of course, the big role is Coriolanus, and the star of the show is Patrick Page -- who is just about the hardest working American stage actor. 

Patrick Page as Coriolanus, photo by Scott Suchman

He was the first actor to play Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin in the Spiderman musical, directed by Julie Taymor. And as you can see for yourself, he has done a lot of Shakespeare.

It shows. He commands the stage like the military hero he is playing.

Also, for a character such as Coriolanus, who is famous for being opaque -- unclear in his motivations and actions, especially since he has no long soliloquies to help us see into him -- Patrick Page brings a certain clarity to the man. 

He makes sense of the character in a way that surprised me. I think it is the vulnerability he brought to the character. He somehow made this great warrior Coriolanus more human.

But what was even more gratifying is that despite the fact that the Coriolanus role could overwhelm the whole play, the rest of the cast was able to shine as well.

All of the other actors were very good at not only defining who they were as characters, but they were brilliant at giving definition to the role of Coriolanus. 

I saw Christopher Walken as Coriolanus at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1988. He was good, and I enjoyed the play, but he completely overshadowed the rest of the cast.

As a result, I had difficulty understanding the play.

I admit that I have not studied the play very much since then, because the meaning of the play and the motivation of Coriolanus seemed to be impenetrable.

I think the problem with the version I saw with Christopher Walken was that the play needs to be more of an ensemble, and not a vehicle for the lead actor playing Coriolanus.

The version I saw last night solved that problem.

From Left: Aaryn Kopp, Patrick Page, Diane D'Aquila and Reginald Andre Jackson
 photo by Scott Suchman

Diane D’Aquila as his mother Volumnia, Aaryn Kopp as his wife Virgilia, Robert Sicular as arguably his closest friend Menenius, Reginald Andre Jackson as his bitter rival and later his ally Aufidius, and especially Hunter Zane as his son Young Martius -- all of them were so good in their roles, but more importantly they advanced the story and made the story much more clear.

The rest of the cast is excellent, and all of them help to bring meaning to the character of Coriolanus. 

But if we focus on what the other characters say and how they behave towards him, it becomes much easier to understand who and what he is.

In that respect, the play was very engrossing in a way that I did not anticipate.

The director David Muse deserves a great deal of credit for his inventive staging, inspired choice of music, like the use of drums throughout -- sometimes humorous and sometimes very dramatic.

Photo by Scott Suchman

But more than anything, I appreciated the emphasis on the other actors, and not just on Coriolanus.

The story and the character unfolded for me, and I was able to imagine what it was like for Shakespeare to write this play and stage in around 1608.

This would have been one of Shakespeare’s last plays. I sensed a certain exhaustion in the writing, a certain lack of humor, and messages that he had written in other earlier plays.

There are funny moments to be sure, but the central action of the story, of the rise and fall of this famous military hero is so dramatic that it sucks all of the air out of the room. 

Shakespeare is famous for giving funny lines to minor characters to humanize the stories and give us a break from all of the high drama. I don’t think it works in Coriolanus, and it’s not the fault of the actors or the director. It's in the language. 

Basically, when the drama is so high, and the humor is so low, then the jokes fall flat.

Shakespeare had sent many of the same messages found within Coriolanus in other earlier plays like Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Richard III and especially King Lear.

It is no surprise that Coriolanus was written during the reign of King James. Shakespeare wrote Othello, Macbeth and King Lear while he was the official royal actor and playwright to the court of King James. 

Shakespeare was a King’s Man, and he wrote these plays not only for but about King James.

Without going into great detail, recently I discovered the true identity of Shakespeare’s Othello character

Shakespeare’s Othello character is based on a famous Roman Emperor Otho. But Otho has a lot in common with King James himself. 

So, Othello is Otho is King James.

What that says about Shakespeare and his relationship to the King should give you an idea of what he was saying to King James, when Coriolanus would have been performed for the King at court -- and what he was saying about King James when the play would have been performed for the public at The Globe Theatre and Blackfriars.

In simple terms, Shakespeare was asking the King to disrobe himself for the public, and he was asking the public to see the King for the man he was. 

The scene with Coriolanus in his "gown of humility" where he must show his wounds to the public in order to get their votes to become consul is critical, and the scene was done to perfection last night at the STC.

It should come as no surprise that Shakespeare, who found the story of Emperor Otho in Plutarch, should use Plutarch again to tell the story of Coriolanus.

Emperor Otho committed suicide to help stop the growing civil war in Italy. Coriolanus, after he is banished from Rome, begs his mortal enemy Aufidius to kill him.

Shakespeare is saying many of the same things with both plays. 

It is hard to pinpoint it, but I do sense a certain exhaustion in the writing. I think Shakespeare was getting tired of saying the same things over and over again.

By this moment in his life and career, whatever enthusiasm and energy he had, whatever dreams he had of changing the world, were quickly fading.

I don’t think he wanted to bring down the government, I don’t think he was an anarchist. 

But I do think that he was afraid of the monarchy. He had seen it up close in a way that few others had, and he could see how powerful and potentially destructive it could be.

Coriolanus’s complaints about meeting the public are very likely drawn directly from his eye-witness experiences with King James.

We know that the beginning of the play, with the food riots, are drawn from real history, and there were popular revolts during King James's reign.

I think Coriolanus’s contempt for the rioters is very much like King James’s contempt for his subjects.

Finally, when Shakespeare was writing this play he was not only concerned with the dangers and abuses of power by King James himself, but of what lessons King James's children were learning from their father.

One day, King James would die and one of his children, Prince Henry most likely, would succeed him.

Shakespeare was wise enough to be worried about those future Stuart monarchs.

In the production I saw last night, the director completely understood Shakespeare on this issue, and the scenes between Coriolanus and his son were excellent, and came to a great climax.

I don't want to ruin the ending of the play as I saw it last night, but it struck exactly the right note. 

I am very excited to have seen this production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. It allowed me to enjoy the play, understand the play much better than before, and tap into what Shakespeare was saying with this play -- over 400 years ago.

I strongly recommend that you see this production!


David B. Schajer

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