Coriolanus is one of William Shakespeare's seldom-produced plays, and for good reasons. Shakespeare wrote it toward the end of his career, after he'd created most of the characters we remember. Compared to those oversize characters—Hamlet, Juliet, Falstaff, Iago, Rosalind, the Macbeths, Lear—Coriolanus feels like the product of an exhausted brain.
He's the Shakespeare version of an action hero, bouncing against a series of plot points without any mind-expanding monologues or deep character analysis. As literary critic Harold Bloom wrote, compared to Shakespeare's other major characters, Coriolanus has "the most limited consciousness." He's volatile and tragic—imagine a revved-up frat boy with more power than he can handle—but he's not that interesting. Coriolanus is, fundamentally, just some guy. (T. S. Eliot, in a fit of perverse contrarianism, once pronounced Coriolanus a better drama than Hamlet. He was wrong.)
But Shakespeare's worst plays are still worth rummaging through, and this production—directed by David Quicksall and starring David Drummond, who pitched it to Seattle Shakespeare Company as a pet project—has rewards for both casual theatergoers and Shakespeare nerds.
The title character is a brave and impulsive warrior, a Roman Rambo, who is also a colossal mama's boy. That mama, a battle-ax named Volumina, could've been Lady Macbeth's grandma. She raised her son to be a soldier and takes immense pleasure when his son, her grandson, chases down a butterfly and tears it apart with his teeth. After Coriolanus's twelfth spectacular battlefield victory, she coaxes him to join the Roman Senate. It doesn't take—he's a soldier at heart, better at splitting skulls than legislating or behaving politely in the public eye. When the people revolt against his arrogance, he sarcastically suggests that the senate open its doors to "bring in the crows to peck the eagles." He is exiled and, in a fit of pique, joins an enemy army to attack Rome. His mother pleads with him to abandon the attack, which he does and is then stabbed to death by the enemy army's general.
Though it lacks any famous speeches, Coriolanus has some great one-liners. A Roman patrician describes himself as "one that loves a cup of hot wine" and "one that converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning." Coriolanus sneers when he's leaving for exile: "I shall be loved when I am lacked." Another character says of the Roman Rambo: "There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger." It's no "to be or not to be," but it's good stuff.
Drummond seems genetically programmed for the role of Coriolanus. Physically, he's a creditable warrior—he towers above everyone else onstage with his angry eyes, jutting chin, and enormous hands. His performance isn't notably intelligent or nuanced, but neither is his character, who'd rather pout and throw a temper tantrum than stare into the void. Actors in Shakespeare plays are often tempted to chew the scenery; an actor playing Coriolanus is contractually obligated to.
Therese Diekhans plays Volumina as stately and steely—she resembles Margaret Thatcher, without the smiles and sense of humor. At one point, she viciously slaps her daughter-in-law for weeping over Coriolanus, commanding: "Leave this faint puling and lament as I do, in anger!" The smack isn't in the stage directions—but given the cold fierceness of Diekhans's portrayal, I had to check.
The design, by Carol Wolfe Clay, highlights the play's contemporary elements. Protesting Romans carry signs with Occupy-style fists, and the stage is framed by two piles of rubble: bricks, cinder blocks, swords, and blood-smeared cubes that look like ballot boxes. Seattle Shakespeare Company's stage pillars are slathered with graffiti and wheat-paste-style posters that are part anime and part Aztec, with red dribbles here and there, like Rothko bleeding rust.
Coriolanus is patriotic, courageous, and dumb—a photonegative of Falstaff's more selfish but infinitely deeper wisdom in Henry IV. While Coriolanus is obsessed with personal honor and charges into battle shouting, "Brave death outweighs bad life," Falstaff hesitates on the edge of the battlefield, philosophizing: "Can honor set a leg? No. Or an arm? No... What is honor? A word. What is that word honor? Air!"
Shakespeare was better at writing monologues for tavern philosophers than for soldiers—but this Coriolanus is, at its heart, still fun.