Spend an evening with the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s new production of Coriolanus and you’ll feel a hell of a lot more up to date on current politics than you will after weeks of trying to follow the 2012 primary debates .
Director David Quicksall and his design team don’t need to hit you over the head with contemporary references — the ones they do incorporate are relatively unemphatic — in order to home in on the play’s overriding cynicism and devastating relevance. A sense of irresolvable social and political despair seeps through Shakespeare’s tragedy, more shocking even than its goriest descriptions of the carnage of war. “This peace is nothing, but to rust iron, increase tailors, and breed ballad-makers,” declares one character in a typically jaundiced moment of comic relief.
This staging marks the first time SSC has grappled with the last of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, a thorny product of his final years that, not surprisingly, held particular appeal for the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht. On the other end of the ideological spectrum, T.S. Eliot believed Coriolanus, together with Antony and Cleopatra, was the Bard’s “most assured artistic success.” He also included it among the cultural artifacts alluded to in The Wasteland.
It’s encouraging to see SSC taking on such challenges in a season that’s been peppered with hints of expanding ambition despite the current economic gloom. SSC has begun to look at alternate staging possibilities, using Intiman’s space to produce two of its four at-home productions this season. Meanwhile, George Mount, who founded the Wooden O Shakespeare-in-the-parks series in 1994 to bring the Bard to wider audiences via free summer festival productions, has recently been named SSC’s artistic director.
As it happens, Coriolanus is playing at the company’s familiar digs in the Center House Theater, but the production copes well enough with its spatial limitations to suggest the strange entanglement of public and intimate moments in which Shakespeare’s tragedy unfolds. Set in the 5th century BCE and loosely drawn from Plutarch, Coriolanus recounts the downfall — or rather, multiple downfalls — of Caius Martius, a war hero who is incapable of sustaining a sense of identity when not engaged in battle. He rallies the Roman army in its war against a neighboring tribe, the Volscians, and successfully conquers the city of Corioli, fighting one-on-one against the formidable Volscian general Tullus Aufidius (in an extended sequence excitingly choreographed by Gordon Carpenter). As a result, Caius Martius is granted the surname “Coriolanus” as an honorific.
Much of the play, however, involves scenes of public unrest and political intrigue back in Rome, where Coriolanus reluctantly yields to pressure to run for public office as a consul. Unable to control his wrath when the people are goaded to turn against him, he denounces the incipient republic and is forced into exile, striking up an alliance with his former enemy Aufidius. Carol Wolfe Clay’s set design — mobile panels encrusted with abstract splotches and classical icons — convincingly morphs from graffiti-strewn forum to defensive walls to chichi postmodern art decorating the Roman Senate. Pete Rush's modern costumes include sci-fi touches, while Nathan Wade weaves trendy Middle Eastern inflections into his otherwise aggressively percussive sound design. Kent Cubbage’s lighting evokes the fog of war and the distracting glare of the public spotlight.
While the story itself is easy to follow, its trajectory is unusual, with a dearth of expansive, soul-baring monologues to give us a window into the protagonist’s psyche. In contrast to, say, Macbeth, Coriolanus's big battle scenes occur relatively early on rather than as climaxes, so that for most of the play Coriolanus is compelled to act outside his natural element, a desperately floundering fish out of water.
The imposing David Drummond, literally towering above his colleagues, relies as much on a repertoire of physical gestures as on Shakespeare’s language to communicate his alienation. Like a Spartan bred for battle or a Frankenstein created by the state’s war machine, he lumbers about the stage with menacing, robotic steps; when forced to wear a civilian suit to appear before the Senators, he makes a point of twitching uncomfortably. Drummond interprets the protagonist’s fundamental stubbornness less as a matter of unflinching pride or hubris than as a kind of self-destructive attitude fueled by post-traumatic stress. At times the result is a flattened comic-bookish caricature of the hero; whatever sympathy we feel for Coriolanus comes from our sense of him as a victim, not from any internal qualities revealed here. At the same time, Drummond makes the most of the pivotal encounter when his mother, wife, and son plead for mercy and dissuade him from leading the Volscians in an attack on Rome. For a brief moment, he shows us how compassion eclipses Coriolanus’s default mode of rage and defiance.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!