Shakespeare’s most political play—Coriolanus—is on stage at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) in Madison, N.J., through July 24, and a stunning production it is. You cannot help but draw the rough parallels between the story of Caius Martius Coriolanus and the current U.S. political climate, though these associations result more from Shakespeare’s uncanny insights about human strengths and frailties than a precise forecasting of electoral politics, 2016. (UPDATE: The timeliness of the issues in this play were further explored in an August essay in Guernica.)
Director Brian Crowe’s notes say the play has been various interpreted over the centuries, and that “Shakespeare does not take sides outright, and we will attempt to avoid doing so in this production as well.” There is room for people of all political views to see themselves and their foes in the play’s stirring words. STNJ calls it “a perfect Shakespeare play for an election year.”
Coriolanus (played by Greg Derelian) is a military hero, and when he returns triumphant from the battle of Corioli, the Senate wants to appoint him consul, Rome’s highest office. But because of his disdainful regard for ordinary Romans, the two tribunes who represent the commoners oppose him and inflame the mobs against him. The tribunes, played to perfection by John Ahlin and Corey Tazmania (in a brilliant bit of gender-blind casting), are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they set in motion forces they cannot control that could lead to Rome’s destruction.
As a result of their hectoring, Coriolanus is banished from the city and allies with his former foes to march on the capital and seek revenge. Only at the last moment does the pleading of his wife and, especially, his mother Volumnia (Jacqueline Antaramian) persuade him from his course. Volumnia, who has some of the play’s most powerful speeches, asserts that her son’s valor comes from her. But she is also politic, whereas Coriolanus is rigid and uncompromising. He believes the noble patricians should rule the city by birthright (classic 1% thinking!), while the people’s tribunes say, “What is the city, but the people?”
Throughout the play the metaphor of the “body politic” appears, first formulated by patrician Menenuis Agrippa (Bruce Cromer) and mockingly referenced by Coriolanus in addressing the plebeians: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourself scabs.”
It’s exciting to see a cast of some two-dozen players—all of whom appear on stage in several well choreographed scenes (director Crowe is STNJ’s Director of Education). The minimalist set is visually interesting and opens to reveal a shining Roman eagle, variously lit to dramatic effect. Kudos also to the excellent sound design. An exciting theater experience!
For tickets, call the STNJ box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.
(A version of this review previously appeared on the NYC-area theater website: TheFrontRowCenter.com.)