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.
The ping-pong momentum of reactions from the plebeians and politicians in the show’s first half becomes tediously repetitious, but the pulse picks up in the second, when the consequences of this dysfunctional society are shown to have a clear fallout. Quicksall and the tightly knit ensemble show us a body politic — bodily metaphors recur obsessively throughout Shakespeare’s text — that’s paralyzed by narrow-minded self-interest, in which everything is defined by divisions conveniently pitting “us” against “them” — not just Romans versus Volscians but plebeians against patricians.
Despite token allusions to Occupy Wall Street protesters in an added-on voiceover narration and in the opening crowd scene, the plebs are anything but self-determining: Their rage against the machine is easily manipulated to serve the purposes of their tribunes, played as sniveling demagogues by David S. Klein and Gerald B. Browning. As the patrician Menenius Agrippa, an ally of Coriolanus, Peter A. Jacobs is a silky smooth politico.
Therese Diekhans, who plays the hero’s cool-blooded mother, Volumnia, makes it obvious how much of his characters come from nurture rather than nature. Volumnia extends the oppositional mindset of the world depicted in Coriolanus to gender itself. She scorns images of maternal affection in favor of the heroics of “cruel war” to which she imagined her “man-child” was destined. Sharing the merciless ambition of Lady Macbeth, she announces that “anger’s my meat.” Even the mythological icon of feminine loyalty is deconstructed. A friend of Coriolanus's wife joins Volumnia in mocking the loyal spouse's sensitivity, pointing out that the yarn Penelope spun while Ulysses was absent “did but fill Ithaca full of moths.”
But Shakespeare’s focus here isn’t on the evil in human nature. The lasting impression this Coriolanus leaves is of the frustrating paradoxes that still beset us as we grope for a better society and for leaders who will not follow the familiar cynical patterns. The only catharsis that happens is limited to Aufidius — played with riveting intensity by Mike Dooly — right after his final betrayal of his friend/foe Coriolanus: “My rage is gone,” he gasps, but it’s clear the battlefield will soon be choked with blood once again.
If you go: Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Coriolanus runs through January 29 at the Seattle Center House Theatre, 301 Harrison St. Call 206-733-8222 or order tickets