CORIOLANUS. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Dominic Dromgoole. Globe Theatre,
London. 17 May 2006.
As two-thirds of the Globe theatre’s budget derives from its box office, some critics have asked why Dominic Dromgoole chose as his debut an obscure Shakespearean tragedy that may not draw crowds and, thus, fail to cement his own position in the fickle world of theatre. This question seems perfectly appropriate in the context of Coriolanus’ thematic focus on an anti-plebian hero, the superlative patrician soldier, Caius Martius (Jonathan Cake),
Martius defeats his arch-rival, Tullus Aufidius (Mo Sesay); wins great honors on the battlefield (including the epithet, Coriolanus) then loses greater honors, murdered by his erstwhile opponents/benefactors, the Volscians. The trouble with presenting Coriolanus today lies with the hero’s tragic flaw. Exemplified by an intense disdain for the plebeians, Coriolanus’ hubris is difficult to portray to modern audiences in a sympathetic light. Despite Cakes’ attempts to portray Coriolanus’ athletic and martial magnetism, his sneering disdain of the public overshadows the performance at least until late in the production when he is compelled toward a semblance of self-awareness by the entreaties of his wife, mother, and children. By then, it is a case of too little, too late. As a result, Coriolanus appears rather like Shakespeare’s satiric representation of the great and prideful warrior Ajax in Troilus and Cressida: “whom nature hath so crowded humors that his valour / is crushed into folly, his folly farced with discretion.” (1.1).
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Pride and gullibility make Ajax a soft target. Yet, the same faults of pride and gullibility do not make Coriolanus as convincingly tragic as Ajax is humorous.
If Coriolanus is a thorny and relatively unknown play, why select it to open the Globe season? The play had significant topical references in Shakespeare’s day. Not only has Coriolanus been linked to the Earl of Essex–a man as famous for his style and martial exploits as he was infamous for his impetuosity, irritability, and arrogance, but the inclusion of Caius Martius’ disdainful comments deriding the distribution of “corn gratis” to the people may allude to the Midland corn riots of 1607. Both Essex’s rebellion and the corn riots highlight the struggle between an intransigent aristocracy and a volatile, mob-oriented public.
Since Coriolanus explores the politics of order, it seems then particularly fitting that Dromgoole chose to open with this play as a response to twenty-first century political friction. In the summer of 2006, we saw the perhaps inevitable admission by the Bush and Blair administrations that weapons of mass destruction were not to be found in Iraq and, more recently, the long-awaited but long-suspected information that Saddam Hussein had no link to al-Qaeda. This admission supported what conventional wisdom had invariably dictated all along: a secular dictator will oppose anyone who is interested in establishing a caliphate (this is to say an Islamic theocracy) in his country. The unraveling of the Second Persian Gulf War also brings to light the tensions inherent in Anglo-US governments that increasingly resemble oligarchies and their publics, who are too ready to accept whatever the media is selling only to find out that they have purchased a costly and indefinite war or an unethical withdrawal. Add to this mix, the presence of tens of thousands of allied mercenary forces, a term disguised by the far more palatable misnomer, security firms, and Coriolanus’ conflict between a mercenary, elitist and a volatile public becomes not cathartic but cautionary.
And so the play plays out: Cake’s Coriolanus, disdaining both the body politic’s adulation and abhorrence with equal vehemence, sneers at this emasculated and riotous polis. This same public is carefully manipulated by the tribunes Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus (played by a superbly sinister Frank McCusker and John Dougall) who have been elected to represent the people in the Senate and are eager to undermine Coriolanus’ opposition. As the row between Coriolanus and the plebeians escalates, the consummate patrician politician, Menenius Agrippa (the charismatic Robin Soans), provides a foil as to how an aristocrat should act. Making no secret of his flaws, Soans’ deprecatory wit convincingly diffuses the envy that is one source of friction between Coriolanus and the public. Margot Leicester as Volumnia warrants a mention as well. Like Lady Macbeth, we see the woman behind the tragic hero, and Leicester plays the role of a lady who values Rome over her own flesh and blood with a convincing gravitas.
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Dromgoole claims that he is not ready for Hamlet or King Lear, so Coriolanus may be less political commentary than fortunate accident; however, if one considers his choice of partnering Coriolanus with Anthony and Cleopatra, fraught with enticing questions about imperialism, along the Globe’s 2003 “regime change” season theme, and Britain’s recent fascination with religious warfare at home and abroad, Dromgoole’s Coriolanus becomes a cogent exploration of war, politics and the popular voice. This is a rare treat from a theatre that, by most accounts, caters mainly to tourists and school children.
WILLIAM HENRY SPATES