Review: An Electrifying ‘Coriolanus,’ Addicted to War

Forget about the mutants at the multiplex. The most compelling action hero this summer is wallowing in carnage in Central Park, mowing down multitudes with nothing but a naked sword and a whole lot of testosterone.

Did I just call him a hero? Perhaps that isn’t quite the word — or if it is, we need to rethink what it signifies. As incarnated (and incarnadined) by a fabulous Jonathan Cake, the title character of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” which opened on Monday in a fire-breathing production at the Delacorte Theater, isn’t anyone you would want your children to emulate.

True, he saves the city of Rome from pillaging invaders, almost single-handedly. And he’s a committed family man who is especially loyal to his mother. Of course, given that Mom (the dominating Volumnia, played by the mighty Kate Burton) is the only person around who matches him in fierceness, he’d better be.

But if you look closely at his motives — something Coriolanus would never do himself — he’s not exactly what you’d call noble, unless you mean patrician (which he is by birth). He’s not propelled to martial glory by love of country, or a moral code, or even self-advancement.

Coriolanus is, to put it bluntly, addicted to war. Without it, he has no idea who he is. When we see him standing tall on a smoking battlefield, drenched from head to toe in the blood of his adversaries, we realize it’s the only time he looks fulfilled and at ease. He’s as happy as a spoiled 2-year-old with the sandbox all to himself.

Scholars of Shakespeare have often been a bit perplexed by this late tragedy, written after the concentrated period of creativity that produced “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” Unlike the central characters of those masterpieces, Coriolanus has little time for cosmic reflection or soul-searching soliloquies.

Harold Bloom, in “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” went so far as to say, “Inwardness, Shakespeare’s largest legacy to the Western self, vanishes in Coriolanus.” He describes the character as having “very little mind, and no imagination whatsoever.”

Yet problematic, easy-to-loathe characters from the canon bring out the best in the director Daniel Sullivan, who steered Al Pacino to a Tony nomination as Shylock in a “Merchant of Venice” that began life in Central Park nine years ago. With “Coriolanus,” Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Cake send off thrilling depth charges by probing a titanic figure who is afraid not to live entirely on the surface.

Mr. Sullivan hasn’t neglected the bigger picture or failed to tap the play’s power as a mirror of contemporary anxieties. He has set his “Coriolanus” in the tomorrow of our nightmares. Beowulf Boritt’s ingeniously transformative set conjures a terrain of makeshift scrapheap citadels.

Lighted in polluted tones by Japhy Weideman — with costumes by Kaye Voyce that look as if they might rot off the body — this landscape brings to mind the blasted, post-apocalypse world of the “Mad Max” movies. Don’t imagine, though, that living in limbo has brought people together.

On the contrary. Led by two scheming, self-serving tribunes (Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham, wonderfully craven), the common folk of Rome are a fickle, fearful lot whose allegiances change with the wind.

The ruling class of senators and generals, who pander to the crowd, are no better. Like their latter-day equivalents, they know that when it comes to controlling the masses, optics are everything.

Which means that their star soldier presents a serious problem. Caius Martius Coriolanus makes no secret of his contempt for the proletariat, “whose breath I hate as the reek o’ th’ rotten fens.” His refusal to court their good will — and bless his heart, he does try, but it’s just not in him — leads to his banishment. This in turn triggers a reversal of fortune for his country, as a vengeful Coriolanus switches his allegiance to Rome’s greatest enemy, the Volscians.

Such an account of nation-destroying factionalism hardly sounds like fun summertime fare in these days of a dangerously dis-United States. Yet this “Coriolanus” is the most purely entertaining one I’ve seen.

That’s not so much because of the picturesque battle sequences (Steve Rankin is the fight director), or any suspense about their outcome. And it should be said that the production’s big, scene-closing moments, including its finale, rarely land with full impact.

But more than any Shakespeare in the Park offering of recent years, “Coriolanus” combines insight and showmanship with a clarity that makes you forget you’re listening to Elizabethan English. All the cast members — including a gimlet-eyed Louis Cancelmi as Coriolanus’s Volscian archrival and secret soul mate, Tullus Aufidius; and Nneka Okafor as his neglected wife, Virgilia — speak with engaging, heightened naturalism.

But what makes this production so uncommonly gripping is its view of Coriolanus as a man not exactly at war with but rather in flight from himself, determined to avoid the identity beneath the armor. Mr. Cake (who was a memorable Jason to Fiona Shaw’s Medea in 2002 and clearly deserves more classic starring roles) presents him as a gangly, overgrown, socially challenged adolescent who is graceful only in battle.

He’s all unedited impulse, and watching him try to control his peacetime temper evokes the irresistibly awful spectacle of a tantrum-prone tennis star losing it on the court. (Ian McKellen has said that his 1984 performance as Coriolanus at the National Theater was partly inspired by John McEnroe.)

Such behavior makes a lot more sense after you meet dear old Volumnia, whom a splendid Ms. Burton portrays as the ultimate macho mom. When this Roman matron sits, she man-spreads. And please note her sentimental pride when she learns that Coriolanus’s son (Emeka Guindo) has been chasing butterflies and mangling them with his teeth, just like his dad used to do.

The toxic chemistry between mother and son has seldom been more effectively or enjoyably rendered. And the homoerotic tension between Coriolanus and Aufidius, his canny nemesis, has a warping heat that charges and confuses both men. Their embrace when the banished Coriolanus seeks out Aufidius is a sly masterpiece of tragicomic awkwardness.

Not that Coriolanus would ever acknowledge that there’s anything sexual going on. As Mr. Cake portrays him, Coriolanus is forever on the run from self-knowledge. Speaking of Aufidius early in the play, he says, “Were I anything but what I am, I would wish me only he.”

Mr. Cake stumbles on the phrase “what I am,” as if he knows he’s skirting dangerous territory when he verges on self-definition. When he leaves Rome in exile, he looks out with welling eyes and says, in a simple line that throbs with greatness, “There is a world elsewhere.”

Source link