The title character in “Coriolanus” is one of those Shakespearean heroes you love to hate — or maybe you’re just hating yourself for having warm feelings toward this rather unheroic hero.
For one thing, there’s the “soaring insolence” of his aloof warrior. Coming off a definitive battle that saved Rome from the marauding Volscians, he refuses to pay the customary tribute to the people. “He loves not the common people,” it’s accurately said of this emotionally remote hero.
Then, there’s the uncomfortable matter of his mama’s boy persona. To be sure, Kate Burton makes a commanding figure as the his indomitable mother Volumnia, but still …. And what are we to make of the great man’s almost eager capitulation to his arch-enemy, Aufidius, impressive though he may be in Louis Cancelmi’s manly performance?
Problematical hero though he may be, Coriolanus is played here by Jonathan Cake, and that makes all the difference in the world. A Shakespearean actor to the manner born, having played canonic figures both here and in London, Cake finds the backbone in this reluctant man of the people and makes his eventual downfall all the more tragic.
For one thing, Cake’s Coriolanus seems a man obviously born out of his time, an impression heightened by director Daniel Sullivan’s unusual attack on this drama, the last of the great tragedies. As established by Beowulf Boritt’s extraordinary set — a hulking contraption of distressed-metal flats — and Kate Voyce’s rag-bag costumes, Coriolanus is a man without a country. Or, at least, no country known to ordinary Romans.
His ideal habitat, it seems, is the battlefield — any battlefield, at home or abroad, anywhere but in Rome during peacetime. No man of the people, he stumbles all over himself trying to find a place among the people who neither understand nor welcome him. (The famous scene of Coriolanus reluctantly stooping down from his noble height to court the “voices” — that is, the votes — of the rabble has a remarkable sense of contemporary discomfort.) No wonder Volumnia fusses over her grown-up boy, and no wonder his wife, Virgilia (Nneka Okafor, wringing her hands), has little to say and less to do with her lord.
If ever there was a hero without a place to lay his weary head, Coriolanus is that hapless hero. Cake understands this man without a country and gives him the only compassion he’ll ever find in the warlike land of his birth.
That much is clear, although whatever else Sullivan had in mind makes no more sense than the physical trappings of the production. Neither primitive nor futuristic, the play feels unmoored, its themes unrelated to any recognizable period, no less our own. In this context, or lack of one, the exiled hero’s longing to find “a world elsewhere” resounds with uncommon desperation at the end of the play.
Wherever he goes, let’s hope he takes the rest of the characters with him, because no one else seems any more comfortable in this nowhere-world they inhabit. To be sure, the gutless tribunes played (very well indeed) by Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham would be at home in any corrupt administration. And the silver-tongued Menenius Agrippa (played by the silver-tongued Teagle F. Bougere) could survive in any society that thrills to a good speech. But this is no country for old men — or any young men with a passion for politics — and this is a production that is still looking for a place to call home.