Coriolanus is not training-wheels Shakespeare. At almost 4,000 lines, it’s the second-longest play in the canon, beat out only by its far more popular younger brother Hamlet. It’s a late play, thorny and tough in both its language and its content, and its near-perpetual stream of invective and argument can start to feel numbing — one round of railing after another. It’s got a fleet of unnamed but thematically crucial chorus roles, along with an exceptionally unlikable anti-hero who undergoes pretty much zero change until the last act. What it has to say about people — individuals and collectives — isn’t pretty or hopeful. And it’s a play whose politics are easy to see but whose political message isn’t necessarily easy to parse: The Nazis thought it was great. So did Brecht.
Like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus is a play that’s likely to appear in American theatrical seasons in times of political strife, but like Caesar, it can be a trap. It requires a director who knows exactly what story she’s trying to tell, who isn’t afraid of confronting the text with hedge trimmers, and who can convert the generalized currency of “relevance” into the clarity and focus of a specific vision. Sadly, Daniel Sullivan’s postapocalyptic take — now covering the Delacorte stage with the rusty, filthy flotsam and jetsam of ecological collapse — is more concerned with its own trimmings than with instilling its audience with a powerful, legible sense of Why. Overdecorated and underbaked, the production feels diffuse and monotonous, unconvincing and yet convinced of its own importance. It’s a textbook example of high-level deadly Shakespeare: The kind of show that will deepen the disconnect for audience members who may feel tentative about these plays, tacitly sending them the message that they’re bored because they don’t understand. No: We’re bored because it’s boring.
The red flags are waving from the beginning, with Beowulf Borritt’s trash-strewn, corrugated-steel set (think WaterWorld at Universal Studios, but, sadly, without Jet Skis) and Kaye Voyce’s pulled-out-of-a-garbage-fire-but-still-kind-of-hip costumes (very Derelicte). Like steampunk, postapocalypse is a risky aesthetic: It’s well past its novelty point, and what it in fact necessitates is the rigorous construction of a complete fantasy universe, with all its own rules and hierarchies. Mad Max is brilliant because its world is as fully thought out and as effectively conveyed as Middle Earth or Narnia. But pinning screenshots from Fury Road to your production’s mood board isn’t enough. Coriolanus is a play about class: It begins with an enraged group of hungry citizens, the working-class Plebeians of Rome, demanding grain from the wealthy Patricians, who’ve got the city’s storehouses under lock and key. In Sullivan’s world, we get to watch Caius Martius (Jonathan Cake) — the muscly, arrogant super-soldier who will eventually be decorated with the surname of the play’s title — tell off a disgruntled crowd while he uses a personal key to unlock some kind of aristocrats-only water cistern and give his small son (Emeka Guindo) a drink. We get the implication (although the amount of stage business Cake has to wrestle through actually keeps us from hearing his text), but the gesture doesn’t feel like it rests on a foundation of comprehensive choices. Sullivan has created a landscape where everyone looks essentially the same — from the “humorous Patrician” Menenius Agrippa (Teagle F. Bougere) to the tribunes of the people (Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham) to the people themselves — and the rules of status and power feel told by the play itself but not viscerally shown by the production. We’re constantly distracted from the argument of the language by niggling questions about the logic of the aesthetic.
But that seems to be Sullivan’s — and, in most recent Delacorte productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen, the Public’s — game. Lurking underneath the production values and, frequently, the prioritization of an easy kind of topicality, is a basic mistrust of an audience’s ability and desire to engage deeply with these plays. “Hear me speak!” says Coriolanus’s First Citizen (Max Gordon Moore) as the play begins, delivering the three words that echo again and again throughout the piece, but Sullivan’s Coriolanus doesn’t demand our attention. It’s been built for our eyes, not for our ears, and it never even gets close to our guts.
Out of the enormous cast, only Bougere seems to be having any fun. He’s friends with the language and juggles its nuance lightly. Part of what makes Coriolanus so tricky is the very gray area in which its authority figures exist: Menenius is witty, charming, sympathetic, but he’s no more a “good friend to the people” than the scathing Caius Martius; he just wears his elitism more subtly. Then there are the tribunes — representatives appointed to advance the Plebeians’ interests — whose purpose, to our democratic mind-set, is a righteous one, but whose own ambition and self-preservation smack of corruption. The tribunes are easy parts to flatten, and Sullivan goes the predictable route with Graham and Hadary, making them into little more than calculating manipulators. Shakespeare gave these actors the opportunity to play something complex — the eventual ugly underbelly of what begins as earnest high-mindedness: i.e., Politics — but this production paints over its characters’ various shadings with broad, monochrome brushes.
Most trapped of all is Martius himself, the Patricians’ bulldog, the war hero whose ill-judged foray into politics sparks riots, banishment, and near mass destruction. Cake is a natural choice for the role: He’s physically imposing and his plummy voice is always only a note away from a sneer. But he’s declaiming the part, not feeling it — or, if he is feeling it, that sense of vital connectivity is bouncing back inward off the fourth wall of Sullivan’s stage like Han Solo’s bullet inside the trash compactor. For as much as Martius rants and rages and demonstrates his warlike prowess, Cake comes off not as dangerous but as insular, not a bloody, bristling live wire, but an actor who’s more focussed on the sound his voice makes than on the impact his language is having. Cake blows his words up like balloons and we all gaze at them together, rather than forging them into javelins that he can launch at his fellow actors.
And as Volumnia, Coriolanus’s infamous hard-ass of a mother, Kate Burton doesn’t fare much better. She stalks around scowling, setting her feet apart and thrusting her shoulders forward — and overdoing the amount of withering scorn she pours on her son’s quiet wife, Virgilia (Nneka Okafor) — but again, we miss the layers of her role. It’s her love that will eventually undo her son, not her ferocity — or perhaps a lethal combination of the two. But as with so many among Sullivan’s company, Burton is mostly asked to play one thing, which leaves us feeling like not only the potential of the characters has gone untapped but that of the actors as well. I left the production without any idea who Martius’s great rival, Tullus Aufidius (Louis Cancelmi), even was, apart from another guy with large biceps. It doesn’t help that Sullivan inexplicably drains almost every drop of sizzling eroticism out of Martius and Aufidius’s late-in-the-play reconciliation. I don’t know how you can — or why you would — deliver such wildly delicious lines as
I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ’twixt thyself and me;
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat,
And waked half dead with nothing.
without any tremor of sex in them, but somehow Cancelmi manages it.
But that sense of being overdressed and drained of oomph comes down to no single actor. It pervades the entire production. The show, to reverse Macbeth’s construction, is not deep but loud, and loud without real clarity of vision. Compelling ambivalence is different from deadening ambiguity. What should we take away from this Coriolanus? That people are wolves as individuals and dogs in a group? That “the many-headed multitude” will or won’t eventually stumble its way toward a more just society? That democracy is dangerous? That democracy is the only way? That Martius was dangerous? That Martius was right? I really don’t know. And in this production, I really don’t care.
Coriolanus is at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through August 11.