Romeo and Juliet (Mission Theatre Company)

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Source: facebook.com/missiontheatrecompany

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been staged, restaged, and reinvented countless times (so much so that I can attend one production of it while doing dramaturgy research for another production in the fall). When staging Shakespeare, there’s always the weight of the past and people’s expectations with the material, as well as struggling to make a tale that feels as old as time new and innovative. Director Penelope Parsons-Lord of Mission Theatre Company’s production currently playing at the Crane Theater recognizes this in her director’s notes, discussing her work to move away from the stereotypes we might carry from this tale of star-crossed lovers. She also discusses falling in and out of love with the play, something I know very well. Like most graduates of the Minnesota public school system, I was introduced to this in play in my freshman year and hated it. I did not understand the love-infatuated characters or the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets.

Because I’m working on this show in the fall (as a literary intern), I’d recently read the script a few times and was more attune to the changes and cuts made in lines than I probably would be. I’m going to assume you know the plot, but just in case you don’t, here’s the Wikipedia article for you. This production gives us certain glimpses that we don’t get in the script, such as a scene before the Chorus’ prologue with two lovers entwined and one being slain, giving us a look at the cycles of violence in Verona. Also added is Romeo being rejected by Rosaline, hints of Lady preferring  Paris to her husband. The world feels fantastical, like a dark fairytale. Rose petals represent love and glittering confetti is thrown at the more joyous moments. Romeo (Vincent Hannam) moves from lovesick to giddy to enraged and violent, giving him a wide emotional trajectory and vibrance. Juliet (Bethany McHugh) is just as vibrant, perhaps more so because she’s given such a refreshing portrayal. If you’ve ever read Harold Bloom (a rather conservative Shakespearian theorist) and his thoughts on Romeo and Juliet, he scoffs at those who “surrender” the play to “commissars of gender and power who can thrash the patriarchy,” resisting the urge to give Juliet a feminist reading*. Considering that I like giving the patriarchy a good thrashing, I was overjoyed that McHugh’s Juliet is headstrong, relentless, and a little sarcastic (especially to her two mother figures, the nurse and Lady Capulet). Juliet seems a little older and wiser than I’ve seen before while still hopeful and lovestruck. Both Hannam and McHugh wonderful capture what it looks like and feels like to suddenly fall in love with someone. Romeo might make the first move, but Juliet quickly reciprocates, grabbing him and pulling him in for a kiss rather than only letting him take the lead. It’s a little detail, but one I greatly appreciated and gave Juliet a different edge – she’s assertive, this may not be the first time she’s kissed someone, and she’s willing to take risks to get what she wants.

Juliet’s physical agency becomes a larger issue in this piece, as the show overall contains a great deal of physical movement. As the show goes on and tragedy unfolds, Juliet seems to slowly lose agency over her body. She is pushed and thrown down by her father Lord Capulet, she is grabbed and shaken by Romeo, and Paris grabs her for a kiss she is repulsed by. Even when she is unconscious and presumed dead, Romeo still takes control, carrying her across the tomb and trying to sit her up. These scenes are hard to watch (especially the scene in which, while telling his daughter she must marry Paris, Lord Capulet throws his daughter and her nurse the the floor and attacks his wife) perhaps because I seem them too much in my own world. The use of violence in this particular scene reminds me of its similarity to Hero’s decision to fake her death in Much Ado About Nothing. Juliet and Hero have some interesting parallels, both with fathers who are upset that they haven’t followed the rules (though Hero has been misjudged) and with faked deaths in order to escape their situations (though it ends very differently for Hero than it does for Juliet). At the end of this show, it’s almost jarring to watch Romeo haul Juliet around because so much has already happened to her. Given current issues with control over women’s bodies, it’s interesting to see this. I don’t know if that’s the intention, but that’s certainly where my mind went with it.

Along additions mentioned previously, there are also some cuts. Towards the end, the Prince’s lines (as well as others) are given to the Chorus, which appears as the ensemble throughout the play, almost like wraiths in the embodiment of death and violence that hangs about Verona. The Nurse’s humorous tangents, as are some of Juliet’s forecasting her own death and her “apology” to her parents, promising she’ll marry Paris (before she actually drugs herself and appears to be dead). Much of Mercutio’s sexual jokes and euphemisms are also cut. While there are many humorous moments in the play, and some are given to Romeo and Juliet, I did miss these bits. I did enjoy that Mercutio and Benvolio are both played by women (Tamara Koltes and Ashely Hovell, respectively) which adds a new element to the relationship they share with Romeo and adds a little more female power the stage. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is markedly different, with a very dark feel as Mercutio slaps away the hands the ensemble that try to envelop her and ends on a note that feels as if she is recalling an assault. Given the earlier feelings of loss of agency, given Mercutio’s gender and eminent death, perhaps the cuts of humor are important to establish a very different kind of Mercutio.

The way in which the Chorus is used is also really powerful. In the script, the Chorus arrives at the beginning of Act 1 and 2 to give the audience an idea of what’s going to happen/what’s just happened and then is never seen again. While the bit at Act 2 is parsed down, there are other moments where the Chorus steps in, especially in the background of scenes. At times, some of the ensemble work felt a little too much – the dance choreography at the ball scene at the beginning, as much as I liked it, involved clapping and made it a bit difficult to hear some of Romeo and Juliet’s exchanges from where I was sitting. At others it isn’t clear what’s going on until later, which adds an interesting layer of complexity. For example, when Mercutio and Tybalt are slain, the ensemble arrives to drop red rose petals and resurrect them in a sense. Later, when these actors appear in the ensemble, it almost feels as if they have joined this group of wraith-like beings (maybe it’s the ragged black hoods, reminding me of the Ring Wraiths from Lord of the Rings that makes me feel inclined to call them wraiths). One scene in particular that stands out it Juliet’s poisoning/drugging scene. Before she drinks the potion she’s secured from Friar Laurence (who’s portrayed as wonderfully kind and wise by Gary Danciu), uncertain if it’s going to work or if it’s going to kill her, she imagines she sees the her deceased cousin Tybalt. Because Tybalt is one of these wraiths and appears before her, it hits home the impact of Shakespeare’s words and Juliet’s mental state. The ensemble then transitions from Juliet’s unconsciousness to Romeo’s dream, placing Juliet in Romeo’s hideout where he is dreaming that she arrives to find him dead. This work with movement is especially beautiful and powerful.

There are a few little things that I struggled with in this production – at times, emotion in actor’s voices overtook my ability to hear the line being said, though overall I understood/ heard clearly more lines than I have in other productions of Shakespeare’s plays. There were a few transitions that felt a bit long (though one was clearly a costume change, which is understandable) and I found Mercutio and the ensemble’s singing of “Do You Believe in Magic?” during Romeo’s struggle with being lovesick jarring (perhaps only because I’d made up my mind that this took place in some other fairytale world).

There was something else that caught my eye about this production that initially caught me off-guard but made me think about how we work with Shakespeare. On the program/promotional material for this show this quote is featured: “These drops of tears/ I’ll turn to sparks of fire.” I didn’t recognize it from Romeo and Juliet so I did some investigating. A brief search taught me it’s from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Curious about why it was used, I reached out to Mission Theatre and received this response sent along from director Penelope Parsons-Lord:

Whenever I approach a Shakespearean text I try to clear my head of all preconceived notions about that play. This is something that I try to encourage audiences to do as soon as I have an ability to reach them, starting with our marketing material. Hence, I always try to find a quote that cuts to the heart of my interpretation rather than one that is commonly associated with the play. I love the action encapsulated within this quote, it perfectly sums up both the heartbreak and danger of grief. What we choose to do with our personal and collective griefs as a society directly relates to the kind of culture that we create around us – cycles of violence can be started and continue so easily. The world of this play is a heartbreaking combination of grief and fire ready to explode.

I think this really captures the way that Mission Theatre is working with this iconic work and I’m grateful to have received this response. It’s really insightful and I wish that this focus on the quote could have been included in the director’s notes because I find this perspective so interesting.

Overall, this show is moving and powerful. It can be hard to make people care about such iconic characters, especially if we know their tragedy very well. But it was easy to empathize with Romeo and Juliet and feel the urge to leap in and somehow prevent their untimely fates. The violence portrayed was uncomfortable and, even to someone who often feels desensitized, made me cringe and squirm. Juliet’s reawakening from her sleeping potion and her death were the most painful for me, causing me to actually feel nauseous and she choked and cried her way back into life. Pain isn’t always easy to act onstage but this production does it especially well. Performed in two hours without an intermission, this show careens through six short days, making it feel (as Carson Kreitzer has described shows without intermissions) like “a merry-go-round you can’t get off.” Something I especially appreciated was the content warning found in the lobby at the box office/ concessions stand, including warnings that show depicted violence such as suicide and domestic violence and also including hotlines for those who might seek help. I don’t often see content warnings for shows and I’ve never seen one that also provided help referrals. Given the impact of this show and that often young students (such as high schoolers attend) I’m glad this was included. I personally have suicide scenes in other shows triggering and might have found the domestic violence unbearable if the content warning hadn’t ben given.

With Shakespeare, there’s so much to play around with given that his shows contain so many allegories, dense characters, and even denser language. I love how this production investigated new territory and made this well-known play feel new. I might feel a bit conflicted about some of the changes, but over all this is is a dynamic, powerful piece that I’m so happy to have seen.

Romeo and Juliet is directed by Penelope Parson-Lord. It is playing now through June 17th. For ticket and show information (as well as a full cast list, as I was sadly unable to mention them all), please check out Mission Theatre’s website.

For more of my thoughts on my reading of this particular play, please check out this poem I posted while doing my own dramaturgy research for the Guthrie’s production this fall.

*quote taken from Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom.

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Juliet: a poem

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Source: author’s photo

I’ve decided to play around with content out here and start including writing that’s not limited to reviews or thoughts on shows. As I’m working on the Guthrie’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet as the literary intern, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play. It used to be one of my least favorite, but not because of the play itself. Because of 9th grade English, Taylor Swift, and Bella Swan, I found myself hating how the play had been appropriated into our culture instead of what the play actually contained. Revisiting it in my reading and research (and planning to see a production of it by Mission Theater Company this Friday) I did some soul-searching and rethinking about what in this play did intrigue me. Turns out I actually really love this play (as I do most Shakespeare) so I wrote a poem about it. 

Juliet
“beautiful flower”
A contradiction
Portrayed so often
as an ingénue who doesn’t know
the pain of heartbreak
(or so someone would like me to believe)
Yet she would rather die
than live without her Romeo
live a life caged in
by iron bars and iron ways

Though she is seen as sweet and simple
her world is pain
filled with relentless violence
senseless hatred
poisoned words and poisoned minds
Perhaps she has learned to hide this pain
(as so many women do)
Beneath bright skin and cherry red lips
a storm rages

Though she fights no battles on the page
she is a badass, a warrior
turning against society’s norms
Bold bright and cunning
she listens to her mind and heart and body
instead of numbing herself to the pain of the world
and doing what she is told

She spurs her family
trading blood lines for life lines
and breaks out of hatred
based on names
based on bodies
based on prejudice

Some claim Shakespeare wrote this tragic tale as a warning
of what happens when fools fall in love
of romantic love overtaking family bonds
and children refuse to listen to their elders
But perhaps it’s a different warning
a warning of what happens
when we refuse to let ourselves love freely
of violence begetting violence
prejudice begetting prejudice
Cycles that repeat because
we cannot break free from the wrong kinds of passion

Juliet
too often reduced to petty love songs
and cardboard characters
in love for the sake of love
Society would prefer me to hate her
(and I did, not so long ago)
because it would prefer me to be jealous
(that greened eyed monster)
jealous of her looks
her innocence
her love
but most of all her freedom
Her fate is not one I want
but if my choice is death or a cage
it would be death that I take
She took her own life
rather than live with hate
with losing the power to make up her own mind
with hatred, the greatest pollutant of the soul
She battled against the darkest of foes
a battle women continue to fight
(we have died that same death a thousand times)
Still that fight goes on

 

 

Review: Coriolanus

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Source:newepictheater.org

Currently playing in rep with The Normal Heart at the Lab Theater, is New Epic’s staging of Coriolanus. Before I begin to review this production, I have a confession to make: this is my favorite Shakespeare play as well as being a show that fundamentally changed my life. I saw this performed in London at Donmar Warehouse in January of 2014 with Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus and Hadley Fraser as Aufidius. I loved the production so much that I watched it again via National Theater’s film broadcast and for a while, it convinced me that all I wanted was to be strictly a Shakespearian dramaturg. When I heard that New Epic would be doing this play, I was elated.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Donmar production during last night’s opening show. The Lab Theater itself is similar to Donmar (an old warehouse, with bare brick walls and an intimate space) and certain staging choices were also reminiscent – the use of the ladder during the first battle scene, chalk being used to draw on the floor (though in a different manner), Coriolanus’ fate at the very end. I’m curious to know if there are common tropes or directorial choices for the show or whether Donmar’s production was an influence, or if it’s just uncanny coincidence.

The similarities end there, however, and Joseph Stodola’s production is unique. The play has been adapted, cutting out much of Shakespeare’s more tangential portions but also cutting out the character of Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife. In her place, Volumnia (Michelle O’Neill) takes on two roles – that of Coriolanus’ mother, but also his confidant and empathizer. Before I get ahead of myself, here’s a quick summary of the play – Coriolanus (Torsten Johnson) is unpopular with the people, due to his harsh attitude and his lack of empathy for the plebeians. However, Rome is also at war with the Volscians, and Coriolanus, who has been brought up as a warrior, trained by his mother and right hand man of sorts, Menenius (Zach Curtis). The Volscians, led by Aufidius (Michal Wieser) hate Coriolanus but also admire him for his strength and prowess as a warrior. Coriolanus defeats the Volscians and returns home, triumphant and with new wounds that Volumnia is proud of. As is tradition, Coriolanus is meant to show off his wounds as an emblem of his honor and success in battle. However, he is stubborn and headstrong and refuses, instead promising the people to show them in private, in order to gain there votes. Realizing they have been lied to and Coriolanus has absolutely no intention of keeping his word, the people turn against him, using the Tribunes, Brutus (Grant Sorenson) and Sicinius (Adam Qualls) to banish him from Rome. Knowing “there is a world elsewhere,” Coriolanus leaves his tearful mothers and joins with his former enemy  Aufidius to plot Rome’s downfall.

As was the case in The Normal Heart, the cast remains outstanding, with Antonio Duke as Titus and Jucoby Johnson as Cominius, both members of Coriolanus’ army. Shakespearian dialogue can be a bit tricky, but for the most part it was clear and succinct, not at all falling into the dry, dull space that people all too often seem to think Shakespeare occupies (and sometimes does). There is also a modern feel to the editing of the script, making the scene move at a quicker clip and parsing down the lines so the move more smoothly. There were a few instances where the lines didn’t land quite right to my ear, but overall it was slick and seamless.

The cutting of Virgilia and emphasizing Volumnia in a different way was interesting and uncomfortable. Volumnia is a bit like Lady M. from the Scottish Play and is very powerful and controlling. But this production adds a very dependent and incestuous edge to her relationship with Coriolanus. The downside of this is that it distracts from the tension between Aufidius and Coriolanus, which is vital to understanding Coriolanus’ complex nature. He turns to his enemy abandoning the life of a proud warrior, but one who is still at the beck and call of his people, to be worshiped and adored by his enemy, who is the human personification of the id and may turn on him at any moment. Having Volumnia also express such id-like passion and refocusing the play to include more of her was interesting, but I’m not sure it worked for me and I feel it somewhat overshadowed Aufidius and Coriolanus’ relationship.

Aufidius and Coriolanus’ scenes were wonderful, however, and the fight choreography was superb. The chemistry between Brutus and Sicinius was also fantastic, capturing their cunning to overthrow Coriolanus wonderfully and adding an almost mind-reading feel to the way they thought and interacted. Having this play in rep with The Normal Heart makes for some very interesting comparisons between shows, especially between the characters the actors are doubled up on. While I might not like all the adaptions to the script, the way the two shows work together is really wonderful, especially in terms of characterization. It’s also interesting to track the props and see how they shift from show to show and take on different meaning.

This show also takes on a certain power in an election year, with so much focus being on voices being heard, fears of tyranny, and political personas. What I love about this play is that it doesn’t deal with the Rome we know in its glory days, but an early, unstable Rome recovering from a previous dictator and struggling to find its way. New Epic’s way of capturing this is very powerful and one that produces an interesting echo when seen along side a show such as The Normal Heart which deals with establishing a different kind of power in culture. I’m thoroughly impressed and can only wish companies had the ability to shows in rep more frequently.

 

Coriolanus is directed by Joseph Stodola and is playing now through April 16th at the Lab Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. Ticket prices and information can be found on New Epic’s website.

Also, check out my friend Kendra’s interview with Jospeh Stodola on her blog.

And if you’re curious about Donmar Warehouse’s production of Coriolanus, read my thought about it here.

Review: Coriolanus (2014)

Tom Hiddleston Caius Martius Coriolanus Photo by Johan Persson 4

Source: donmarwarehouse.com

This is an abridged version of the post I wrote after seeing Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse in London in January of 2014. The tone of this is rather different from what I use on this blog, so be prepared for random allusions to other media and over-eager fangirling. Hopefully this will provide some more background on the plot this Shakespeare tragedy as well as my thoughts on it. For a review of New Epic’s production at the Lab Theater, read it here.

I would like to preface this post with the admission that the fact that I saw this show, in the flesh, in London is A) exceptionally fortunate, lucky, and privileged,  B) somewhat phantasmagorical and surreal that it actually occurred, and C) one of the most humbling and moving experiences of my life. If I could personally thank everyone at Donmar Warehouse associated with the show, I would do so, but I am afraid this post will have to suffice.

What does one say about Coriolanus? It’s a tragedy, that’s certain. One knows that from looking at the title page of Shakespeare’s script: The Tragedy of Coriolanus. This isn’t going to end well for the title character. But the play doesn’t even start well for the title character. It begins with some very angry citizens wanting to kill Coriolanus for driving up the price of grain. In Josie Rourke’s staging at Donmar, this is preceded by graffiti being panted on the wall in Latin, reading “grain at our own price”. From the beginning, there is a sense of violence, tension, and unease. Sitting in the back row of the circle, the second level of the Donmar, with my back to a fire escape, I was rather terrified every time I felt a bit of wind on my neck or a particularly intense bit of action occurred onstage that someone was going to appear behind me with a sword and I was going to find myself even more immersed in the play than I already was.

Whether you are familiar with the storyline or not, the staging and expression of the actors makes this play engaging and watchable. During the intermission, I told Tyler, my friend/theater companion, that I had somewhat forgotten I was watching a Shakespeare play. I meant this in a strangely positive way – I was so immersed in what I was going on I wasn’t thinking about the transitions from Act 1 to Act 2, I knew things had been cut out but I wasn’t concerned with them as I have been in other Shakespeare plays I’d seen performed. At the end, I knew that certain things had been tweaked but it didn’t occur to me until later and I didn’t mind. Language in Shakespeare is rarely a problem for me but in this staging, with what felt so seamless and smooth from act to act, scene to scene, I forgot entirely that the language I was hearing was not how we speak day to day on the street. It sounded so natural and so clearly expressed that I forgot that what I was hearing was in anyway unlike how I would have a conversation with a friend, or how I’d debate an issue with a coworker.

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus was absolutely marvelous. Coriolanus is a complicated character – he’s not a likeable guy, he reacts rather angrily and forcefully and belittles the plebeians. And yet, Shakespeare wants us to feel empathy for him, to see him as a man driven by urgings to seek glory and power. Hiddleston does this phenomenally well. At the beginning, when he brushes off the concerns of the citizens and later, when yells at his troops in a harsh very un-Henry V sort of way, the immediate reaction is dislike. Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, is quick to anger, violence and is kind of what I’d picture Cato from The Hunger Games being as an adult – a person who was trained early to be really good at one terrible thing – killing. (And speaking of The Hunger Games, according to the program from the play and from Donmar’s Twitter feed, President Snow’s first name in the books is Coriolanus. Guess my seeing all of the allusions to the books isn’t entirely unmerited.) Also like Cato, Coriolanus is greatly subjected to the expectations of his society and the expectations held about himself. He is both prideful and reluctant, wanting to claim what he feels is rightfully his in becoming consul, but refusing to show his wounds gained in battle in order to gain votes.

I’ve asked myself where my opinion of Coriolanus began to shift during the show, when I really began to feel sympathy for him, and it was shortly after the epic battle scene, staged with brilliant effects of falling embers and ashes, in which Coriolanus is presumed dead, only to reenter, bathed in blood. My edition to Coriolanus describes this scene as him being “like a new-born in battle. It is as if, to be a man, the ‘fatherless’ Coriolanus must reborn of his own volition in the masculine setting of war” (Crewe xxxviii). In this particular staging, I saw this scene a bit differently. This is less about becoming a man but becoming a public spectacle, of going for soldier to war hero. Once Coriolanus enters, a horrific, epic sight, he has transgressed from ordinary into completely extraordinary. (But perhaps this is because I was watching Jack Gleeson’s talk on celebrity culture before writing this).

After this scene, in which Hiddleston is covered in so much blood that I truly felt myself growing nauseous, the play shifts into what I’m going to call the shower scene. I’d heard about this part before from the internet reacting to the fact that a shirtless, blood-covered Hiddleston showers onstage. Fans lauded the sexiness of this scene. I would like to add my two cents and assure you that though Mr. Hiddleston may be a very, very attractive man, this scene was not sexy and I was in utter agony throughout the whole thing. If you have trigger warnings with injuries or gore or such, I encourage you to skip the next section in case they might bother you. (Edit/ fun fact: This is how I learned that I am in fact afraid of blood, especially stage blood. Not ideal timing.)

Here is how the scene goes – Coriolanus strips off his shirt, blood matted in his hair and streaming down his neck, revealing a very gruesome wound on his left arm (I was facing stage left and thus got a very clear view of its gruesomeness). He proceeds to stand under a torrent of water, shuddering at first from the cold, then proceeding to slowly, agonizingly, let the water clean his wound. Somehow, without dialogue, only with physical actions, body language, and pained moaning and screaming that just recalling it makes me shudder, Hiddleston makes you feel as if you are Coriolanus, experiencing that piercing water pouring into your wound. This scene felt outrageously real to me and I am still wondering how the make-up artists made the wound look so real and how Hiddleston can possibly express such levels of pain night after night.

By this point in the play, I start feeling rather badly for Coriolanus. He’s gotten really beat up in battle, his worst enemy Aufidius, “a lion that I am proud to hunt,” is still out there fuming and plotting against him, his mother is happy with his return but wants more from him, and now he’s trying to win an election while a lot of people still hate him. He also shows a certain tenderness towards his mother, Volumnia, his wife, Virgilia, and his friend and supporter, Menenius, which contrasts nicely with his rage and anger elsewhere and makes it harder to simply dislike him. Coriolanus has depth and complexity. He  longs to do something else with his life that doesn’t involve killing people for a living. Becoming consul could allow that but he must always conflate his warrior status with being a politician. Or perhaps he is unable to be any sort of politician but that who does always conflate his warrior/soldier life with politics but doesn’t want to be other-ized as this victor, as a war hero. I could postulate on Coriolanus’ mental state all day so I’m going to stop myself before that’s all I end up writing about.

This brings me to another area of interest for me and one I wish I knew the answer to. Upon reading the play, thinking about it over the course of a few months, and then upon seeing it, I found myself changing in how I thought of the characters. At times I agreed that Coriolanus was a tragic hero and at other times he seemed more a tyrant, a future President Snow that was stopped before he could go too far. Other times he was a political pawn, used to garner support for something he seemed somewhat detached from. And yet he still had his pride, he yearning for respect and admiration, to be seen as worthy of great accolade. I wonder, and continue to wonder, how actors peg down such mutable characters. Is there a way of fixing on certain interpretations so that each night you know what sort of Coriolanus you’re playing while still allowing the other versions to simmer beneath the surface, to allow the audience to pick up on these possibilities while still expressing clearly the sort of character you are presenting? Are there still little things that shift about? Some nights, are a word or two given with more anger, more hostility than other nights? Does Aufidius ever present himself with slightly more hostility? Does Coriolanus ever feel a slight bit more forlorn? These are the things I wonder before and after seeing shows, upon wondering how an actor will present a character and seeing that, while a portrayal is clear, I still see so much simmering beneath the surface.

On the note of complicated characters, I’ll pick up with the two lead women of the play: Volumnia and Virgilia. Volumnia is described by Crewe as being powerful, perhaps even more powerful than her son, using him as a sort of surrogate to gain her own status (Crewe xxxvi). In fact, Crewe even claims that Coriolanus might be more valuable to her as a dead hero than a living one (Crewe xxxvii). I was surprised, however, when Volumnia seemed rather hysterical at parts. At first, I found this a little off-setting – why was such a complex character acting so weak? And then I stopped myself. She wasn’t acting weak – hysterics is not a sign of weakness. Volumnia uses her “feminine weaknesses” to stay ahead of the men in her society and make sure that she is in an advantageous position despite her son’s mistakes. If she supports her son, but also distances herself from his actions, she can stay ahead of the tide and keep herself being dragged down into his misfortune. And yet she tells him that “action is eloquence” and yearns for his success. At the end, it’s her encouragement of him to leave Aufidius and the Volscians that is his downfall. However, it rids Rome of the problem he brings to them – a man who has been ousted from his homeland, taken in by their enemies, but longs to a place where he might have been heralded as a hero. At the end of the play, Volumnia returns, viewing her son’s dead body while rose petals fall around her. Perhaps this suggests that she is the true hero, ridding Rome of a future tyrant. Perhaps this is to suggest that she only wanted the best for her son but he refused to compromise to her ideals. Perhaps it suggests that she destroyed him and that there is a tragedy in a misbegotten relationship. Perhaps its none of these. Deborah Findlay makes for a marvelous Volumnia and presents her as a character that is oftentimes is as contradictory as her son.

Virgilia is also a complicated character, made so partially due to her limited amount of lines and little known about her relationship with Coriolanus. Despite the limits of her character in the script, Birgette Hjort Sorensen gives a lot of depth to Virgilia and performs her marvelously. Virgilia and Coriolanus have a son and in Josie Rourke’s staging, the couple seems to have a very warm, affectionate relationship. So when Coriolanus is banished, Virgilia’s reaction is very striking and powerful. Dressed  in a tight black dress and heels with a sophisticated air, she seems the sort that perhaps has imagined being a senator’s wife or a First Lady. This seems, however, to come from a little of Volumnia’s pressures, something that comes out when the two women first appear and Volumnia tells Virgilia to enjoy the time she has away from her husband. This staging of the play makes further allusions to it when both women come to visit the banished Coriolanus and Volumnia pushes Virgilia to confront her husband, which she does rather sexually, sliding into his lap and kissing him while caressing the inside of his thigh. As this builds, Coriolanus pushes her off, seeming shocked, suggesting that something about this is offsetting or unusual. While they would seem to have a passionate, romantic relationship, perhaps this suggests that her actions are used to manipulate him as well. Perhaps Coriolanus is a changed man and cannot feel the range of emotion he would like to have towards his wife at this moment, or perhaps what he feels is too painful to deal with. Or perhaps, given his recent interactions with Aufidius, he simply cannot deal with more intense physicality.

This brings us to Aufidius, a character which powerfully represents the intermingling of sex and violence which Hadley Fraser does with great panache. He seems to simultaneously want to kill Coriolanus and tells him this, while making a lot of sexual insinuations and, in this staging, even kisses him. A case in which homoerotic subtext isn’t very subtext and is performed as such paired up with the pivotal characters of Volumnia and Virgilia makes this play a whole lot of heated emotions. Crewe describes Coriolanus as preferring a plane of “contradictory passion and predatory interchange” in Rome, a harsher, more violent world that could Freudianly be read as consumed by the id (Crewe xxxvi). The interactions between Coriolanus and Aufidius are jarring and confusing, and I love it. There’s no assumptions made about sexuality in the show, nor does it suggest anything about romance. It’s a instance of mutual obsession, in which the two men are muddled up in hate and love and it is expressed in various ways. Complicated this with the idea that Aufidius is meant to be a double of Coriolanus and one could begin to wondering if this is more a commentary on self-adoration and pride as well as masculine superiority and patriarchal ideals, as readings like Crewe’s take on.

Last but not least there is Menenius, who is suggested as a father-figure for Coriolanus and a bit of a Falstaff figure of support. He acts as a bit of comic relief and helps show an endearing, positive side to Coriolanus’ warlike nature. To Menenius, Coriolanus is a hero and a good man, someone who deserves to hold the place of consul, and who could lead Rome to greatness. However, between Coriolanus’ unwillingness to compromise and the citizens’ insistence on Coriolanus to reveal his wounds and keep the promises made to them by those surrounding Coriolanus, Menenius’ hopes are not to be. Menenius seems to be the smooth talker with a comic streak, which Mark Gatiss brings out marvelously, and he acts as the one who can assuage the politicians while Coriolanus rages and spouts whatever comes to his head before the assembly. There is something more restrained about Menenius, as if he were a sort of press correspondent for a rather uncouth politician. While he urges the Tribunes to believe that Coriolanus can be a good consul, Coriolanus with simultaneous darkness and humor snarkily persuades the citizens to fill out the ballots in favor of him. And when the citizens find they’ve been misled, they oust him and harass him, pelting him with tomatoes. Just scenes earlier, rose petals were dropped on a welcomed victor, and suddenly the tides turn and Coriolanus is now beaten with rotten fruit. And yet the worse for him has still not occurred.

I’ll leap ahead now to the end of the show, which I will summarize briefly. After being thrown out of Rome and escaping to the Volscians, Coriolanus is visited by Menenius, whom he rejects, as well as his mother, wife, and son later. They bow before him, treating him as a powerful sort of warlord. Coriolanus’ own son lays prostrate before him, an action, along with Coriolanus’ reaction, that pulled roughly at my heartstrings. In one instance, Coriolanus appears to be ignoring his mother while she speaks to him, his back turned to her and appearing stoic. But, as he was facing our side of the theater, you could see the tears streaming down his face, not in the least bit unfeeling to her words.

Ultimately, Coriolanus decides to leave and return to Rome but, unlike the play, he never leaves the Volscians. Instead of being killed by conspirators, he is killed horrifically by Aufidius himself. Remember the trigger warning about gore from before? I’m going to bring that back for the remainder of this paragraph. Roughly grabbed, hung up by his ankles and either his abdomen cut from navel to chin or his throat cut or both, he is roughly murdered, his body jerking and spraying blood across the stage. To say this scene appalled and terrified me is a gross understatement. I have seen murders in plays – I’ve seen a staging of Macbeth in which Macbeth was trussed up and beheaded. But again, it was the realism here, the uncompromising frankness and intense stage effects that has imprinted this ghastly scene on the back of my retinas for the rest of eternity. I was not expecting the play to end this way – I can’t say that anyone really was – and to then contemplate going to the stage door afterwards felt kind of perverse. Really I only wanted to curl up in a little ball behind my seat and cry for the next hour or two. These are the times I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into by becoming a Shakespeare fan.

I find it hard to really concisely summarize this play because I feel it encompasses so much. However, Crewe has given me a good way in which to do this with the line, “the one all alone is a god or nothing. To be a god in human guise is to be nobody at all, since humanity is constituted only in relation to other humans, and by their recognition” (Crewe xli). When Coriolanus worries about his words being twisted, when he longs to be powerful but by his own accords, not along the demands of the citizens, he struggles with the good old Shakespeare issues of public and private, of a ruler and a loner, of struggling to who he is versus what others want him to be.

I also haven’t managed to talk about the rest of the cast, which is a shame, because they are all brilliant. I especially liked the duo of Brutus and Sicinia, the Tribunes, played by Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger. The stagings they had as well as their expression was really interesting and makes for a great insight to political discussion and commentary on the show. But truly every member of the cast is astounding and all work together marvelously and powerfully onstage.

Despite the fact that I have managed to make this play sound like the most painful thing in existence – and would agree that it has ruined me forever, I highly recommend seeing it via National Theater screening if possible. This show really has changed my life, as a would-be academic and as a fan of theater. It is an amazing, vibrant, powerful performance, and nothing I can say will really capture how much in awe of this show I am. Theater continually inspires me with its ability to interact and engage with audiences but I felt that this production took it to a new level for me. So a thousand and more accolades for Donmar, Julie Rourke, and the entire cast, crew, and whomever else isn’t considered by those mere nouns for this absolutely marvelous show. Consider this an infinite standing ovation.

Citations from:
Crewe, Jonathan. Introduction. Coriolanus. By William Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. xxvii – xlix. Print.