One of the enduring questions about William Shakespeare, which might have surprised him: where did he stand? In Coriolanus, for example, did he side with the Roman poor, who threaten to rebel over shortages of grain (“resolved to die rather than famish”), or with old Menenius Agrippa, the patrician “who always loved the people” and claims the aristocracy cares for them “like fathers”? Or does Shakespeare stand with Coriolanus, in battle an Achilles; in peacetime, a Sasquatch in a China shop?
I like Peter Ackroyd’s answer. Shakespeare, his biographer writes, “had no sympathies at all. There is no need to ‘take sides’ when the characters are doing it for you.” Ann Bogart agrees. When she directs a play, she doesn’t look for its politics so much as its potential for “friction.” Ideas and isms are post-curtain matters.
Shakespeare stood on the side of drama. He took his subject from the ancient Greek biographer Plutarch and took every opportunity to make Coriolanus more extreme. In Plutarch, Coriolanus storms through the gates of Corioli followed by a company of soldiers; in Shakespeare he blazes alone. He becomes, in the words of his mother Volumnia, “too absolute.”
Legend has it that, like Mozart, Shakespeare was a great stream-of-consciousness composer: his words flowed from mind to pen to paper. Coriolanus has the same ability: “His heart’s his mouth,” says Menenius, “what his breast forges his tongue must vent.” In Shakespeare, it’s a gift; in Coriolanus, a curse. Shakespeare has other people speak their minds. Coriolanus cannot be other than himself. He can’t “dissemble,” can’t act, and when he vents, “being angry, does forget that ever/ He heard the name of death.”
Greg Derelian plays Coriolanus at the Old Globe. Though he has an annoying habit of delivering most speeches as HEADLINES, Derelian’s close-cropped hair and ardent swagger give him instant stature, as do his fatigues and black polished boots in this modern-dress (circa 1930) production. Derelian could trounce anyone else onstage or — à la Rambo or Steven Seagal — all at once in a flurry of flying body parts.
Derelian’s stature works for the character. But the production works against him, since director Darko Tresnjak makes the Volces — against whom Coriolanus will battle and later join — decadents who love to par-tay har-tay. As Aufidius, their leader, Brendan Griffin forces gravitas with hard vocal stresses in awkward places. Though his blond hair and brown shirt suggest Nazism, he comes off as a second lieutenant newly minted from a military academy.
In Steve Rankin’s fight choreography, usually an ally, the actors make tentative strikes and parries, as if careful not to harm. Even having explosions and blinding flashes of light around them, the Volces are no threat to Coriolanus, let alone Rome. Stronger opponents would have made the Roman, who fights “dragon-like,” even stronger.
Tresnjak, an always inventive director, resurrected the Globe’s moribund summer festival almost single-handedly (he has left the company, for reasons still unnamed, which is a major loss to local theater). For Coriolanus, Tresnjak devised some remarkable overlaps: battles and their consequences appear as if coming from the mind of the soldier’s domineering mother, Volumnia.
Most evidence suggests that Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus during the summer and early fall of 1608. His mother, Mary Arden, died that September. Some suggest that he based the larger-than-life Volumnia on her. We’ll probably never know. But given the circumstance, it’s clear that Shakespeare had mothers on his mind and created one who — like Mary? — fills her son with o’er-leaping ambition.
In Tresnjak’s reading, Volumnia is a force of nature. Her son is her sword, executing actions she can only dream of. She wishes, for example, that “the gods had nothing else to do/ But to confirm my curses.” And that’s her curse: the gods answer her prayers — but in the extreme. She wanted a heroic son, but he became “too absolute.” When she begs him to relent, he does. And the one time he becomes human, he dies.
Celeste Ciulla’s haunted Volumnia watches nightmares unfold as if staring into a furnace. At first she’s haughty, a fat cigar jutting toward her brazen eyes. Then her hopes slowly devolve. But the more they do, the more she fights and wars with words. In Tresnjak’s reading and Ciulla’s arresting performance, Coriolanus becomes a twofold tragedy: the soldier has a double-hubris, his and his mother’s. He dies — et tu, Aufidius? — but she must live and suffer gravely for the “side” she chose to take.
Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare
Old Globe Theatre, Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Balboa Park
Directed by Darko Tresnjak; cast: Greg Derelian, Celeste Ciulla, James Newcomb, Gerritt VanderMeer, Aubrey Saverino, Charles Janasz, Catherine Gowl, Brooke Novak; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Anna R. Oliver; lighting, York Kennedy; sound and music, Christopher R. Walker; fight director, Steve Rankin
Playing through September 27. (Note: Coriolanus runs in repertory.)