Director Jack Paterson has made a name for himself by tackling Shakespeare in innovative, modern-dress, bare-bones productions. He’s had success with the intense violence of Titus Andronicus and the passionate four-character adaptation, Shakespeare’s R & J. But Coriolanus poses special challenges. Apparently, the play hasn’t been produced in Vancouver for over a century. The preview performance I saw suggests some of the reasons why.
The title character is a Roman war hero whose popularity leads to his election as Consul. But rugged Coriolanus is a reluctant politician who loathes the fickle common people on whose support his election depends. Manipulated by senators, tribunes and his own family—especially his mother—Coriolanus goes back and forth, applauded by the people and then condemned, fighting for Rome one minute and against it the next, until he meets his inevitable tragic end.
Ian Butcher makes a powerful Coriolanus. The noble, bloodied warrior with his shaved head, he has that Bruce Willis look—standing alone on the raised platform at the centre of Al Frisk’s theatre-in-the-round set, raging against his enemies or against the plebeians with their “stinking breaths” whom he’s supposed to be impressing.
Paterson gets strong work from much of his large cast, especially Gwyneth Walsh as Volumnia, the overbearing mother who would be kingmaker to her son but in the end is reduced to eloquently begging him not to sack Rome; Adam Henderson as a Machiavellian tribune who pulls the common people’s strings; and Keith Martin Gordy as the moderate Roman senator Menenius, whose lengthy appeals to reason have little effect on anything.
But boy, Coriolanus is a chilly play. It has none of Shakespeare’s great poetry, little comedy, and hardly a likable character. Coriolanus himself, Menenius says, “is too noble for this world,” but it’s a humourless, one-note nobility. Our hero’s condescension towards the people—who are even less sympathetic than he is—doesn’t help either. The politicos are creepy or impotent, his family needy or annoying, his enemies (the Volscians, led by a miscast Anna Cummer) barely distinguishable from his allies.
Paterson tries to engage us with the visceral violence of hand-to-hand knife fights and angry mobs of hungry proles. But the battle scenes that make up the play’s first half-hour are confusing—who’s fighting who, and why?—and there’s way too much banging and yelling. Much more effective are Jeff Tymoschuk’s warlike sound effects that make you want to duck out of the way of those planes flying overhead.
If you’re a Shakespeare fan, be sure to catch this show. You may not see it here for another century.