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.