As the play opens we hear Volumnia (Colleen Wheeler) in conversation with Caius Marcius’s spouse. Marcius is a renowned, battle-torn general of the Roman army who has fought fearlessly in countless battles. In a dynamic twist that spins Oedipus on its head, director Dean Paul Gibson has cast the lead male role (and many of the others) as female (Moya O’Connell) and sent the dynamic in an entirely new direction.
Through this mother/son-in-law conversation we quickly understand the powerful hold the mother has over her child, and the probable desire for the child to excel at the path that’s been assigned. When Volumnia states, without remorse, her preference for a heroic dead child over a cowardly one we clearly understand her determination in intervening to squash all lamentations from arising that might deter her child from the course she, the mother, has chosen. Volumnia’s domination over one to prop up another who serves in turn to prop her up in the public eye, is her main objective.
We are in the midst of a famine and the Volscian citizens on the outskirts of Rome have banded together to revolt against the upper classes in an attempt to gain access to the corn they believe is being hoarded in the capitol.
Good mediator Menenius is sent to reason with the citizens. He attempts to quell the rebellion through a tale where he likens the central government to the belly of a man that is tasked with the fair and equal distribution of nourishment to the citizen appendages of the body. He is dismissed with contempt and the Volscian citizens storm forward to the city of Corioli. As a response to their actions the Roman army is dispatched to the city to crush the rebels. Marcius leads the charge and later, somewhat unassisted, manages to vanquish the warring faction.
A fiercely loyal and singularly focused soldier, Marcius is reluctant to accept a rewarded nomination to council after returning injured, yet victorious, from battle. Marcius is and will always be just a soldier, but forces align to push the malleable pawn in a new, more politically useful direction.
Marcius is given the added title of Coriolanus and asked to don the customary white robes and meet with the citizens to gain their approval for office. For Coriolanus battle is second nature. Politics and the customary cow towing for votes, a foreign language.
Here Volumnia intervenes again and manipulates her reluctant child into breaking convention and going against the focus that’s been taught in order to do her bidding and woo the masses. It is her reflective ego that is at stake so Volumnia does the unthinkable and kneels, pushing the only buttons she knows will trigger the response she requires. Coriolanus buckles and does as asked but meets the citizens with a demeanour so condescending and gruff that it only generates disdain. The citizens, side-by-side with two ill-advising tributes of the people, rise up to banish arrogant Coriolanus from the city. To effectively re-incite the hubristic wrath of Coriolanus the two tributes name her traitor, which floods the gates with ire. Her true nature confirmed, her fate is sealed and she is banished from the city. While the struggles of hindsight haunt the citizens, the mother laments more for the loss of servitude and honour than the loss of a child. There is mass destruction, war-enforced peace, but still no food for the hungry.
Coriolanus leaves the capitol and ultimately joins forces with Aufidius (Marci T. House), the leader of the revolt that was squashed mere months before. Together, fuelled by vengeance and hunger, they storm Rome, wreaking havoc in their wake, and are at the city gates when Coriolanus’s family is sent to plea for peace.
Here the mother remonstrates for a third time. Coriolanus has been raised on loyalty and honour and is steadfast in holding her alliance to Aufidius until he mother, husband, and child kneel before her. Coriolanus holds fast for as long as possible before succumbing to emotions and laying down swords. There will be peace between the factions but at a cost she alone is aware of. This time Coriolanus names herself traitor and returns to the rebel hold where she is killed by Aufidius and her rebels.
The child delivers and the mother wins the glory of martyred child. And still, the masses are unfed.
Coriolanus is an intricate story that stirs a lot of issues both ancient and contemporary. Director Dean Paul Gibson gives us even more to think about with his gender role reversal and by pulling much of the action into a contemporary setting.
The characters of Brutus and Sicinius are inciters of riots and war, but their end game is up for interpretation. Coriolanus would have been a pawn at council. Did they eliminate the threat they perceived by banishing the messenger?
Coriolanus fights for those she serves while Aufidius fights for the basic necessities of life. Who is the more honourable when it is ultimately the undefended who feel the bulk of the wrath of both parties on route to victory? Who gains and who suffers? Greed, status, honour, manipulation, want, need, anger, love. Where do they settle?
In such an intense play it was good to find places to breathe. There are several moments where the delivery of the lines offer humour and sanctuary from the grimness of events and thought. In place of a few of the traveller/servingmen scenes we find condensed/altered dialogue and a beautiful original song penned by composer Alessandro Juliani and performed by Sara Vickruck. The set design (Pam Johnson), coupled with the projection design (Jamie Nesbitt) are a little DW Griffith in design but work so well with the performances it makes the set changes feel like film cuts. The battle scenes and choreography (Lisa Stevens, Robinson Wilson) are inventive and clever, utilizing actors in multiple roles without leaving the stage.
Moya O’Connell is stellar in the lead role as Coriolanus and Marci T. House stays right up there with her pound for pound. Both women are incredibly articulate, visually expressive, and both listen so closely to everything around them you almost feel like you’re right beside them on stage understanding every nuanced tone of the performances.
Coriolanus is one of the most interesting and thought provoking plays to hit Bard on the Beach in a long time. If you see one play this year make it Coriolanus!
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