Commonwealth Shakespeare Company takes on Coriolanus

The body politic
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  August 8, 2012
ELECTON YEAR! In this loud, over-the-top outdoor production of the Bard’s election-year special, Nicholas Carrière is a complex Coriolanus —patronizing the populace, a man’s man with his comrades, a mama’s boy with his mother.

The man of the hour is running for high office, and he has the support of the party faithful and the moneyed interests, but before he can claim victory, he must ingratiate himself with the unwashed masses, even as rival interests conspire to blacken his name and deprive him of all popular appeal. That could be the storyline for any presidential-election year, not least this one, but it's actually the plot of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, which is this summer's free Commonwealth Shakespeare Company presentation on Boston Common (through August 12). The Bard's source was Plutarch's story of a Roman general who's said to have lived in the fifth century BC. Which just goes to show that when it comes to politics, nothing has changed in the past 2500 years.

Coriolanus is generally dated to 1608, a time when a degree of cynicism had crept into Shakespeare's writing. The title war hero has saved Rome from their enemies the Volscians, and now he's looking to be named consul, but he scorns the "mutable, rank-scented many" (if he were running today, he'd be a Republican) and cannot speak them fair — whereupon two jealous tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, incite the populace to demand Coriolanus's exile. Once expelled, he leads the Volscians against his home town, but then, yielding to the entreaties of his wife and his mother, he makes peace with Rome, depriving the Volscian soldiers of their spoils — for which act they kill him. It's a dry play, long on language and ideas but short on characterization (there's a surfeit of lines — many of them cut by CSC — accorded to unnamed citizens and servingmen and conspirators), and bereft of notable women save for Coriolanus's overbearing mother, Volumnia. Coriolanus himself is the stuff of Greek tragedy, all pride and prejudice. But Menenius and Cominius are stock friends, Volscian general Tullus Aufidius is a stock antagonist, Sicinius and Brutus are stock demagogues, and the Roman people do nothing to refute Coriolanus's description of them as "things created/To buy and sell with groats."

Cristina Todesco's CSC set of tall wooden gates and ramparts with metal scaffolding looks like an extended outdoor shower and somehow conjures Arnold Böcklin's Isle of the Dead, but it works. Director Steven Maler likes his Shakespeare updated and over the top, so at the bombs-bursting-in-air outset, when the Romans are attacking the Volscian city of Corioli, we get Coriolanus in camouflage gear and a military beret brandishing a machine gun while helicopters hover overhead and smoke fills the stage. What with all the thespian emoting, the Bard's words, though clearly enunciated, don't register, and the miking makes everything come out mezzo-forte or louder. Even for an outdoor production, there's way too much shouting and overemphasizing.

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