Globe Theater regulars turning up for the inaugural production of new artistic director Dominic Dromgoole will be surprised to see a slight change to the architecture. Designer Mike Britton has built two stepped ramps down from the stage into the audience. It’s a terrific idea: “Coriolanus” is all about uniting or fighting the standing crowd, and this theater has a ready-made one ranged about the stage. Unfortunately, having ideas about a play is not the same as being able to make them resonate with an audience.
Opening with a season of Roman dramas and not, say, the sunnier, funnier comedies is a bold choice. “Coriolanus” is a particularly unyielding work about a man consumed by arrogance, which makes both him and the play hard to love.
Recognizing that the play’s success depends upon the great scenes where Coriolanus woos and loses the crowd, Dromgoole fashions his traditional Jacobean-dress production around them. The play opens with citizens speaking from among the audience, an idea that flows right up to Coriolanus’ impressive death fall from the edge of the stage into the crowd. Yet that degree of insight cannot mask the production’s fatal lack of energy.
Scene after scene trawls by without tension. The acting is supremely effortful — one can see how hard everyone is working — but energy keeps evaporating because their efforts are neither properly focused nor driven. Robin Soans as a diplomatic Menenius and Frank McCusker and John Dougall as conniving tribunes Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus register strongly because the actors calmly create a sense not only of their characters but, crucially, their detailed relationship to each other and their position in the Roman world.
Too often, however, the production is sunk by generalized acting that rarely connects with the aud. On a stage that thrives absolutely on the dynamic placement of actors in relation to one another — this is outdoor theater, so there’s no lighting to help focus a scene — actors look stranded. That in turn creates a sense of speechifying rather than speaking.
That problem is at its most acute in the central casting of Jonathan Cake, who has the considerable advantage of looking every inch the triumphant fighting man, from the rugged body right up to his Roman nose. That should mean he can play high status with less obvious effort, but Cake rampages about the stage to “prove” his power. Yet he’s so busy furiously growling his way through the role that whenever people discuss Coriolanus’ nobility — and they do, a lot — you wonder why.
Words, lines and whole speeches get mangled — Cake is far from being alone in this — because actor and director are too intent on character display rather than allowing the text to speak. As a result, the necessary gravitas vanishes and Coriolanus winds up looking petulant.
That leads to problems in the play’s key relationship, between Coriolanus and his terrifyingly proud, domineering mother, Volumnia, a rather querulous Margot Leicester. By the time he has switched sides and gone over to the enemy, Cake has calmed down considerably and proves a good deal stronger in repose.
Yet his earlier petulance undercuts his capitulation to his mother’s fearsome plea that he give up the war on his Roman home. There should be the powerful sense of a very great man falling. The scene is affecting here, but it should be far stronger.
Dromgoole’s appointment to helm the Globe after 10 years under founding director Mark Rylance raised eyebrows. Despite his recently published “Will and Me” — a memoir about his passion for the Bard — Dromgoole has only directed one of the plays, a wretched “Troilus and Cressida” in 2000, which was a bloodbath in terms of reviews rather than anything that happened on the stage. His second Shakespeare outing is, mercifully, a good deal more capable — not least because this venue can attract more experienced actors. But it provides little to change the view that Dromgoole is a better producer than a director.