Coriolanus doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I understand why. It’s ugly. Its language lacks lyricism. Its arguments can be hard to follow. It is very long. It’s difficult to stage—full of characters, full of crowds. It’s a tough read, a play that doesn’t yield up its wonders in the armchair.
But I contend that it’s a neglected gem, a play that is special in large measure because it is such a Shakespearean peculiarity. This is a strange thing to say about a play set in 600 B.C., one of the most ancient settings for any play by Shakespeare, but Coriolanus is strikingly modern.
Some of the things that make the play so unique:
1. It is arguably Shakespeare’s most political play. Shakespeare was a political thinker, so that’s saying a lot. No other of his plays contains close to as much discussion of government, power and class. The play’s primary mode is debate and its primary subject is political power. Characters with a whole range of different political convictions discuss, argue, form and dissolve alliances, and maneuver for power.
2. It is Shakespeare’s most public play. It contains a riot, a large battle, a grand battlefield ceremony, three public celebrations, a street brawl, a public trial and banishment and an execution in the public square. By contrast, there are only two brief snippets of monologue. It’s as if nobody is alone long enough to talk to the audience in this play.
3. Shakespeare never wrote crowds like this. These are not the faceless mobs of Julius Caesar. They are individualized and full of character. They have different opinions about their polis and discourse intelligently about it. In the very first scene of the play, in the midst of a rioting mob, the most radical of the citizens begins to speak in verse. (“Fore me, this fellow speaks!”) This is not a play in which the prose-speaking simpletons chant lines together. They are individuals, and only under extreme circumstances do they behave like a mob. This is not a play about kings and queens or generals and senators but about an entire polis.
4. The play is unique sounding. This is Shakespeare writing the poetry of politics. It is the language of debate, of political attack, of scheming and manipulation. It is rough, harsh, rhetorical, irregular, non-lyrical verse. It’s a bold departure for Shakespeare: a powerful, complex, unromantic poem written at the height of his linguistic powers.
5. At the play’s center is Shakespeare’s least sympathetic tragic protagonist. He is proud, elitist, anti-democratic and impolite. His injured pride leads him to recruit an enemy army to attack his homeland.
So what makes the play so interesting to me?
It concerns very modern political issues. It’s a play about class and class conflict. The central conflict is not so much within Coriolanus as external to him. It’s the people vs. Coriolanus. The plebeians vs. the patricians. Democracy vs. elitism. These conflicts are central to our political universe, especially in a large representative democracy in which generally aristocratic politician-celebrities govern. We are a society who knows this tug of war: we seek equality but worship celebrity; we venerate the ensemble but really like the star.
And true to form, Shakespeare doesn’t take sides. The people are smart, articulate, engaged, fighting for a voice. They are also cowardly, fickle and reckless. Coriolanus is arrogant, disdainful, elitist. He is also an astute observer, a truth teller, a man devoted to principle.
Some famous productions of the play have taken sides. Brecht liked it for its empowered Roman populace and leftist politics. But 20 years before Brecht, the Nazis liked it too, offering it to their youth as an example of valor and heroism.
This production won’t take sides. It’s not what Shakespeare is up to.
Let me also say that the psychology of the play is fascinating. It’s easy to dismiss Coriolanus as an arrogant ass. A snob. But there is much to admire here: as I said, Coriolanus is a man of principle. He sees through pretense. He speaks the truth. He is unwilling to put on an act, to play a part, to pander, to pretend, to lie. He is in fact a man too principled to get by in the world. Like Menenius says, “his nature is too noble for the world.” The world snuffs him out.
And of course the play contains one of the most extraordinary and fascinating portraits of a mother/son relationship Shakespeare ever wrote. Patrick Page will tell you that Coriolanus is a textbook Phallic Narcissist. That’s a Freudian diagnosis. Or Puer Aeternus. That’s Jungian. Come see the performance to see what he’s talking about.
And in case I’ve scared you by talking about the play’s length and its heady politics, let me also say that Coriolanus is the closest Shakespeare came to writing a political-thriller action movie. And I’m determined to have everyone out of the theatre by 11:00 p.m.
So how are we doing this sprawling, long, epic, crowded play?
I’ve split the world in two. Half of the cast are patricians and half are plebeians. Nobody doubles across class lines. There’s a thematic payoff to this—it emphasizes the class conflict that is central to the play. And there’s a practical payoff—it allows an ensemble of plebeians to play dozens and dozens of roles in a way that feels deliberate.
The idea is that we don’t try to mask all of the ensemble’s changes but that we embrace them. That we don’t attempt full costume changes. That we allow the audience to see some changes happen on stage. And we take this overt theatricality a step further in that we watch the plebeians “labor” to run the production. They move furniture. They operate lights. They make music and noise. This ensemble of plebs are the workers who labor to support the patricians and make the production possible.
Now this won’t be what I call a period-analogy production. We’re going for something modern in feeling but still epic. It’s a “swords and suits” production. I want it to be close enough to us that these politicians feel eerily familiar, but also to be nestled in a world where martial valor and hand-to-hand combat have some meaning.
And the space. I asked Blythe R.D. Quinlan to design a set that controls scale. That can frame a single human being and not swallow him up. That can make this big stage feel crowded. That can shift quickly. That feels solid. And that feels old and new at the same time. We were both drawn to concrete, which features in a lot of modern architecture (particularly the “Brutalist” style, appropriately for this play) but was invented by the Romans. We want to stage it fairly simply, so we’re being fairly restrained about shifts and changes. No big furniture, no laborious changes, no grand living rooms rising from the floor. Strong, bold, theatrical and simple.