Monday, February 21, 2005

TRAGEDY WRIT PLAIN AND SMALL. Saw the Theatre for a New Audience's production of Corilolanus this weekend. The Times calls this "postmodern" but it looked like straight-up Brechtian theatre to me, with actors announcing scenes with apposite phrases from the text scrawled on the grey walls of the box in which it is played, and changing roles more or less in full view of the audience. Most importantly, a good deal of the romanticism has been wrung out of the playing and the concept, the better to expose the play itself to our scrutiny.

From my perspective this seems like an attempt to give the play a fair reading against the difficulties it presents for modern audiences, not the least of which is Shakespeare’s dim view of democracy, at least the Roman variant, which was the only one he knew. (Blog knows I don’t generally approve political interpretations of art, but this is a famously political text.) The Bard uses the phrase "the People" frequently and with obvious contempt: the proles, politically empowered for the sake of temporary peace and stirred maliciously against Coriolanus by their slippery Tribunes, are here even more foolish and dangerous than the "blocks… stones… worse than senseless things" in Julius Caesar, and their unsuitability to power is more crucial to the plot. The parable of the human body with which Menenius defends the Roman system – "The Senators of Rome are this good belly, and you the mutinous members" -- will be familiar to readers of William Camden and Thomas Hobbes. For all its philosophical interest, this isn’t the sort of thing with which most moderns, whatever their politics, can be easily made comfortable.

Very sensibly, the director takes it at face value: she gives one of the key proles a comical hillbilly accent (which he reprises when playing a Volscian of similar station), and the dialects of the Tribunes suggest working-class roots which, however smoothed by political experience, yet feed their resentment of entrenched power ("Doubt not the commoners, for whom we stand, but they upon their ancient malice will forget with the least cause these new honors").

This tidily accomplished, we can concentrate on the noble Romans, and they too are taken at face value: Volumnia talks about her son’s blood-drenched attainments as if they were spelling bee championships, and Menenius the "humorous patrician" is a political fixer whose pusillanimous manner gently cloaks a great heart.

Coriolanus himself is a fascinating case, dramatically. That he lacks the fan base of Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, or even Anthony, despite his sometimes excellent poetry, may owe to the impenetrability that defines him. One friend who saw this production decided she liked him because "he doesn’t kiss ass," but Coriolanus’ obsessive self-determination does not strike me as particularly attractive. His suicidal/homicidal course admits no counter-argument until the rather base hectoring of his mother finally turns him against his own will, and he seems only fleetingly aware that he might be wrong; there are no deliberative soliloquies on the order of "How all occasions do inform against me" or "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" to draw us into his turmoil – in fact, of turmoil he has but little: his best speech ("O world, thy slippery turns!") is purely self-justifying.

Christian Camargo’s performance appears to admit this. When not raging or fighting, he takes in each situation as if it were a dish brought before him that he could relish or sweep off the table as his mood struck him. If he is noble, it is in his inability to be moved by things smaller than himself, and when his fall comes (from his mother’s stronger will), he is not ennobled by it, but unmanned; his performance of the well-known stage direction, "Holds [Volumnia] by the hand silent," is a wrenching grasp of her wrist, and even the other characters react as if he might break her arm.

This is a clear and highly theatrical reading of the play. Whether it is correct is another matter. The only other production I have seen was at the Public, years ago, and I have forgotten who did it. It was fairly traditional, and not as interesting as this one, but it was warmer and wooed us into sympathy with Coriolanus. At the moment, I don’t know really whether the new production has disabused me of a misapprehension of the play or not. I do know that it seems smaller to me now than when I went into the theatre.

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