There is a rather extraordinary production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at free Shakespeare in the Park. Coriolanus is one of the Bard’s plays that is seldom done here, or anywhere. Most Shakespeare companies are afraid of this searing drama about an ancient Roman hero whose name it bears. In the first place, Coriolanus was a colossal snob, a contemptuous reviler of the common people, and it is hard to find an actor rugged enough, and sensitive enough, to make the raging Roman convincing and at the same time sympathetic.
Director Daniel Sullivan’s production is plagued by some faults, mostly scenic and costume-wise. By setting it in the early 21st century in a war-torn, tattered Rome, and the city of Corioles, the scenery by Beowulf Boritt makes Rome look like an automobile graveyard with corrugated tin panels and scaffolding filled with haphazard junk and a burned car. A terrain Samuel Beckett would have appreciated. Kaye Voyce, the costume designer, accentuates all this with the plebeians, dressed in ragged mufti garb. The effect seems a bit silly, though Japhy Weideman’s artful lighting tones down some of the scenic effects as the play moves along.
But this Coriolanus has a first-rate supporting cast, and as Coriolanus, the impeccable, admirable Jonathan Cake, who carries most of the play triumphantly. Cake is a talented English actor who never disappoints. Years ago, he was a dazzling Jason in Fiona Shaw’s Medea, and brilliant in Mark Lamos’ production of Cymbeline at Lincoln Center. Cake is a handsome, tough presence who moves quickly and carries himself with ease and the force of a soldier who might have the courage, as Coriolanus did, to storm the city of Corioles single-handedly and conquer it. He is no blusterer. He speaks Shakespeare’s lines with authority, and with rolling ease, but without rant.
He excuses none of the man’s faults. When Coriolanus jeers at the plebeians, he is bitter and biting. His contempt is hectic and biting, on the edge of being frightening. He seems to spit out his ugly words to the common people, who he refers to as “the mutable, rank-scented many.” He has moments of glory when he storms to victory at Coriole and wins the crowned name of Coriolanus. He has moments of deep, appalling bitterness when the great, proud soldier tries in vain to suppress his contempt of the multitude in return for their votes, that he may become consul, and thus ruler of Rome.
He has moments of human decency, and even tenderness, when Coriolanus buries his pride to yield to the persuasion of his heroic mother, Volumnia, being played magnificently by a silvery-haired Kate Burton.
The greatest scene in this neglected drama is greatly done in this production. In it, mother and wife Virgilia (Nneka Okafor) confront him as he prepares with the aid of a foreign army to destroy Rome, because he has been banished. Burton stands up to her son and appeals to him as her son to spare his own city. Cake stands stony-faced and silent, without responding. Voluminia abandons sentiment to warn him in one of Shakespeare’s great speeches that, if he proceeds, history will hold him in contempt forever. Burton brings strong dignity, pride and a chilling authority and power to this great, persuasive speech. Cake hears her out and ultimately yields with a moving show of grace.
As Cominius, a Roman general who befriends, honors and endlessly admires Coriolanus, Tom Nelis is dignified and persuasive, especially in a speech that Coriolanus delivers to the Roman Senate on behalf of his friend. Teagle I. Bougere, as Senator Menenius Agrippa, wrangles with the plebeians on behalf of Coriolanus.
As a pair of tribunes, Sicinius Veletus (Jonathan Hadary) and Junius Brutus (Enid Graham) are conniving political leaders who fear Coriolanus and force him into a situation where he demonstrates his hatred and contempt of people. But it is ultimately a mother-and-son show, Coriolanus and Voluminia, with Cake howling down the people out of almost insane pride, then yielding ultimately to his own mother, that makes this production stirring and, at its best, wonderful.