Laura Kolb (Baruch College)
Walking into the Barrow Street Theatre to see Coriolanus is a lot like going to vote. In part, that’s a conscious choice on the part of the Red Bull Theater company, who have taken over the space for their election-season production of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy. The walls in the entryway are plastered with VOTE HERE signs, their message repeating in multiple languages, big black arrows insistently pointing the way toward the stage—signs identical to the ones that cropped up all over New York on November 8. In part, though, it’s the space. On the first floor of Greenwich House, a multi-purpose community center, the theater is a big rectangular room with movable chairs arranged in neat blocks around three sides of a modest stage platform. The whole thing looks earnest, clean-but-shabby, temporarily rearranged—not unlike the school cafeterias and senior center basements where we line up periodically to vote. We are in Shakespeare’s Rome, and we are in an American polling place.
The play centrally dramatizes an election gone awry. In the second act, Caius Martius Coriolanus, war hero and Rome’s savior against the Volsces, stands for consul. The Senate approves him wholeheartedly in a scene that pointedly invokes American political theater: a cloud of red balloons falls from the ceiling, recalling the moment of Hillary Clinton’s official nomination earlier this year, while Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” her husband’s 1992 campaign song, fills the room. Yet the visual and musical analogy is imperfect. Dion Johnstone’s Coriolanus, dignified and impatient, stands like a still point in the flurry of color and sound, silently refusing the celebration of his own success. Profoundly unlike Clinton, his whole body expresses contempt for the spectacle, shared emotion, and communality that rallies and conventions require. Singular, grave, fully assured of his own extraordinary worth, he stands at the center of Rome while holding himself apart.
At this point in the play, all that lies between Coriolanus and the consulship are the voices of the people—that is, their votes. In the next scene, he grudgingly appears in the marketplace, wearing the “vesture of humility”: here, a nylon track suit zipped up to the chin. Coriolanus compromises, appearing in public to the people he despises, but refusing to show the wounds with which he has, supposedly, earned their support. Early in the scene, the cast members representing the Roman citizens run through the audience asking, “Are you registered to voice?” while handing out red and black slips of paper. These are ballots: red for Coriolanus, black against him. Later, after Coriolanus has finished his turn in the marketplace and exited, the same actors return to collect the “voices” into a metal ballot box. On the night I went—November 4—I tried to hand back both, in a moment of flustered indecision. The actor in my row shook her head and took only the red slip, saying with a little shrug, “Only this one counts.” Her private ad lib summed up the dispirited feeling of the whole scene up to this point. Red Bull’s Roman people support Coriolanus not because of his service to Rome or his barely performed ritual standing in the marketplace, but because they feel his ascension to power is fait accompli, and their participation in the system merely a show—partly free, partly coerced, and entirely perfunctory. They feel, to use a phrase that was very much in the early November air, that the system is rigged.
Only, of course, it isn’t. The defeated cynicism of the Roman citizens in the vote-collecting portion of the scene underscores the shocking enormity of what happens next. Stirred by the tribunes, the people resolve to take back their voices: “He’s not confirmed; we may deny him yet,” one cries. Another, armed with a tire iron, begins to smash the ballot box, now located at center stage. Others rush madly around the stage platform, popping the still-forlornly-drifting red balloons in a frenzy of destruction. The citizens’ turns from frustration to sudden hope to exuberant violence are swift, sharp and thrilling to watch. On November 4, this show’s images of an election swerving off course seemed comfortably far from America’s own fairer, more open, and (it seems strange to say this now) more predictable democratic process.
Surrounded by the trappings of an election, a few days before going to vote myself, I worried that Red Bull would do something trite or embarrassing by trying to force Coriolanus to allegorize our own political moment. (This seemed, at the time, like something worth worrying about.) But the show defies sustained analogy. If it is a mirror of our own moment, it offers only fragmentary and jagged reflections that resist assembly into a tidy whole. Writing this review—past deadline, a week after seeing the show, a few days after the election—I find myself thinking back on the production with respect and appreciation and terrible sadness. It’s a good show, a smart well-acted show. It offers probably the most sympathetic portrait of Coriolanus himself that I’ve seen. The older statesman Menenius describes Caius Martius as “too noble for this world” because of an inability to lie (or rather, to participate in political theater and produce political rhetoric): “His heart’s his mouth:/ What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent.” Johnstone’s body, as well as his words, makes Coriolanus’s inner life starkly visible, rendering the figure unusually vulnerable and open. Facing off with the lithe Aufidius (Matthew Stegman, in tight white jeans and dark eyeliner), he draws himself tall and puffs out his chest, as if willing his own masculinity to withstand the weird magnetism of his slouchy, snaky nemesis. Encountering his mother in his final, abortive march on Rome, he falls to his knees: “O mother, mother!/ What have you done?” We see his tragic recognition of his inability to escape—from Rome, from his mother’s love, from his own terrible dependence on that love. It’s written on his body as he crumples, weeping, to the ground. At the same time, the show pulls off a compelling representation of the Roman people. Played by a small band of actors, most of whom take on other roles as well, these plebeians come across as thoughtful and serious, at least at first. In the opening scene, for instance, they gather calmly, voices firm but measured as they discuss reasonable grievances against an oppressive, neglectful regime. They speak, as the First Citizen says of himself, “in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.” Director Michael Sexton locates tragedy in neither the aristocratic Roman hero nor the discontented Roman populace, but in their demonization of one another. Each sees the other as monstrous, destructive, and cruel; each ignores the other’s basic claims to dignity and life. We glimpse our own polarized political landscape, built partly upon similar misrecognition and demonization.
The show also offers a sensitive portrait of Coriolanus’s family. On the page, Coriolanus’s silent wife and voluble mother seem like extreme, even pathological, versions of the kinds of femininity available in martial, patriarchal Rome. Here, though, these characters appear sympathetic and strong, enmeshed in bonds as ordinary as they are intense. Rebecca S’manga Frank presents Virgilia’s near-silence as deep self-control in the face of perpetual fear. In an early scene, after refusing to leave the house as she awaits news of her husband’s fate in battle, she sits in a meditative pose, eyes closed, palms up, her long, quiet breaths her defense against the vicissitudes of war. Lisa Harrow’s phenomenal Volumnia exercises a hold over her son that comes across as nourishing and stabilizing, even as it forms a kind of trap around him. Her words, when she urges Coriolanus first to the marketplace and, later, not to destroy his home city, come fierce and fast. A truer leader and a better politician than he is, she does not chastise so much as command, and she does so by getting inside the mind of her audience. Reminding her son that he is not self-begotten, she forces him to remember the world beyond himself. Even Coriolanus’s horrible little son—a child distinguished in the text primarily by tormenting a butterfly before tearing it up with his teeth—appears both vulnerable and brave. Played by Olivia Reis, whose two blond braids stick out from under a boyish cap, the child’s chin trembles as he confronts the awful possibility that his father will destroy not only his home, but also his grandmother, mother, and himself. “A’ shall not tread on me,” the boy declares, “I’ll run away till I am bigger, but then I’ll fight.” On one level, this line shows young Martius to be his father’s child, thinking only in terms of violent domination. As Reis plays it, though—chest out, chin wobbling, hand-in-hand with Virgilia—the line captures the bravado of a scared, sad little kid.
In other words, Red Bull has put on a generous and therefore painful production of this bitter, difficult, dark play. And, in its uneven treatment of the specific energies of our specific moment, it has also created a flexible yet jagged piece of art—one whose power comes less from direct relevance than from the very imperfectness of its “fit” with our world. Take those balloons: despite the Senate scene’s clear echoes of the DNC, Coriolanus isn’t Hillary Clinton. He lacks her flexibility, her rhetorical ease, her fundamentally dialogic relation to the world. But he isn’t Donald Trump, either. Both Coriolanus and Trump are outrageous, singular figures, only imperfectly integrated into the political systems that seek to harness their destructive energy and potential mass appeal. Both take pride in their disdain for the game of politics, catastrophically unaware that what looks like a game—rhetoric, strategy, theater, compromise—really isn’t one. Both have a kind of magnitude, a bigness, that is simultaneously fascinating and loathsome. Yet Coriolanus’s unshakable sense of his own worth (and his corollary contempt for others) derives from his tested, publicly acknowledged prowess as a warrior, not a partly fictional past of glittering business success. Moreover, his egoism takes the form of obsessive modesty. When Johnstone delivers Coriolanus’s terse rejection of praise on the battlefield—“I have some wounds upon me, and they smart/ To hear themselves remembered”—the victor’s pride mingles with pain and exhaustion. Nothing could be further from Trump’s incessant bragging about his own status as a winner and a taker—rapaciously grasping at fame, money, votes, women, Emmys.
If this tragedy tracks our recent electoral season, then, it ultimately has less to say about the play’s central, singular figure than about his antitheses: the crowd and its leaders. When the citizens first appear, they seem to be a mix of left-leaning protesters: there’s a figure in a Guy Fawkes mask, another in a t-shirt with a Malcolm X quotation (“You can’t have capitalism without racism”), a third whose shirt reads, “DON’T WORRY, BE YONCÉ.” Their grievances, voiced in the first scene, however, are economic: they speak out “in hunger for bread” against the patricians’ storing up of excess grain. The ebb and flow of their anger feels faintly incoherent and irresolute; they are motivated in part by real hunger, in part by hunger for scapegoat, and in part by a shifting, widening sense of political possibility. Half-resolved in the first scene to rise up against Caius Martius, “a very dog to the commonalty,” they are soon calmed by Menenius (Patrick Page, a bourbon-voiced, charismatic good ol’ boy), who teasingly cajoles them into line. By the play’s midpoint, when they rescind their voices, they have become a more firmly anti-elite mob, shouting, in unison, “The people are the city”—a chant that sounds less like a proto-democratic cry that a call to “Make Rome Great Again.” The newly created tribunes invite similarly conflicting readings. Played by Merritt Janson and Stephen Spinella as determined, fast-thinking, and exhausted (you can tell that their feet hurt) these two seem like sinister doppelgangers of The West Wing‘s idealistic, overworked White House staffers: for them, representing the people involves inciting hatred in the people. They are ruthlessly adept at harnessing and amplifying the energy of the crowd, turning the citizens’ hesitant critique of Coriolanus’s manner—“He mocked us when he begged our voices”—into a coup.
This fall I’ve been thinking about what any of the early modern plays I teach and study and see in the theater have to do with our current moment. Trump is Richard III, Stephen Greenblatt warned us in the New York Times.[i] Only, he’s not. Richard schemes and plots; he plays a long game; he is full of secrets. Nor is Trump Richard II, or Henry IV, or King Lear or Macbeth or Angelo or Hamlet or Claudius or conquering Fortinbras or hapless, stupid Rosencrantz. Renaissance drama offers images of power turned monstrous, of rulers whose self-regard swallows any sense of obligation, of conquerors who try to refashion the world in their own image. And it offers stories of reputations blown huge and blown up, of fictions that become reality, of seismic ideological change and civil war. But it offers no adequate analogue for this twenty-first-century American figure, whose most effective rhetoric is hatred, and whose hatreds are roving, proliferative, and metamorphic, emerging into language from the depths of an obscure and muddled psyche, a mind as incoherent as Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is clear, structured, spare.
A few lines of William Carlos Williams—“It is only in isolate flecks that/ something/ is given off”—have been floating up into my head since seeing Coriolanus, since voting, since trying to teach classes on King Lear and the Inferno in the days after Trump became the president-elect. Wrenched from their context (the penultimate stanza of “To Elsie,” which begins “The pure products of America/ go crazy”), the lines have become a kind of private shorthand for both the limits and the possibilities of understanding the world through old texts, and the performances that inflect them with the new energies of our own moment. One such inflection from this production remains particularly vivid. In the play’s final scene, the Volscian people turn on Coriolanus, who has joined forces with their leader Aufidius in his exile only to relent and spare Rome at his mother’s urging. Shouting “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!”, they converge on Coriolanus, knives out. He is overwhelmed. This crowd is not the Roman citizenry, but the same small band of actors who played them also play the Volscians, and their convergence on the figure at the center of the stage echoes their earlier destruction of the ballot box. Like the release of the red balloons, this is also political theater as jubilant communality. Violent rhetoric begets violent action. Symbolic destruction replays as murder.
The day of the election, the Times published an article by a photographer about his experiences recording the Trump campaign. He writes about what, by the end of the campaign, had become familiar features of rallies:
“I often hear racist and violent comments and see young children chanting, “Lock her up! Lock her up!”…. alongside their parents. Near Milwaukee, a man leaned over the metal barricade separating us and whispered to me that if Mrs. Clinton were there, they would “rip her to pieces.'”[ii]
Shakespeare’s plays are not handbooks. They aren’t mirrors for modern princes or maps for navigating the chaotic terrain of the twenty-first century. But here and there, by design or by chance, they light up the terrors of our moment. Don’t look away.
[i] Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election,” New York Times, 8 October 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/09/opinion/sunday/shakespeare-explains-the-2016-election.html
[ii] Damon Winter, “In Sight, Yet Elusive: A Year of Photographing Donald Trump,” New York Times, 8 November 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/09/us/politics/donald-trump-presidential-campaign.html
Categories: Theater Reviews