In all her years of acting, Moya O’Connell says she’s never been asked to sword-fight before. This wouldn’t necessarily be shocking, except for the fact that O’Connell has done a lot of Shakespeare. A lot. In fact, she’s played many of William Shakespeare’s highest-profile female characters—including a buzzed-about Lady Macbeth at Bard on the Beach last year. Since the beginning of her career, O’Connell knew of just one of the playwright’s roles that would let her swing a broadsword in the name of the Bard: Viola in Twelfth Night. That is, until now.
“I’ve never even been asked to punch someone in the gut!” O’Connell tells the Straight with a laugh. It’s her lunch break from rehearsals for Bard on the Beach’s fourth show of the 2019 season, Coriolanus—the first staging of the play in the company’s 30-year history. O’Connell, who stars in the title role, never dreamed she’d get this opportunity.
“Especially not Coriolanus, the most masculine of all the Shakespeare canon,” says O’Connell, who’s marking her eighth season at Bard on the Beach. “That is exciting, and it is different than playing female roles. This is a person who takes action, who makes things happen, and that’s the great thing.”
Coriolanus is a controversial character who spends much of her time preoccupied by vengeance and who is, above all else, a skilled warrior. Historically, Coriolanus has been a man, and an arrogant, violent man at that. And even though O’Connell has spent decades performing Shakespeare, this is the first time she needs to rehearse her fighting technique.
“I started training a long time ago, months ago, building up my stamina and doing all sorts of MMA and boxing and just a variety of different types of workouts so that when I got into the room I would be ready to take on the choreography,” O’Connell says. “There’s a lot of violence. Coriolanus is a violent character, and we’re really going deep into that.”
Coriolanus is a dense play, and not a very popular one. It’s a political tragedy with a high body count, an indictment of toxic masculinity 400-plus years ahead of its time. But this Coriolanus, directed by Dean Paul Gibson, narrows its focus to the play’s most salient and troubling themes: power, corruption, fascism, and cruelty. The gender-flipped production is set in Rome’s not-so-distant future following some kind of solar-flare event that has wiped out the Internet and most technology. Coriolanus has been quashing uprisings, protecting the ruling class of Rome. When she seeks to join its ranks, her lack of political tact gets her deposed and she vows vengeance against her enemies and, ultimately, Rome.
“Coriolanus believes [that] in a time of instability, the people need absolute governance,” O’Connell says. “That these rebellions and these uprisings are just going to make us more vulnerable to being attacked. And obviously, she’s at odds with this democratic uprising that’s happening. She’s potentially a dangerous leader. At the end of the play, Coriolanus—spoiler alert—is killed. It’s a tragedy. You should probably think, ‘Yeah, that’s not a terrible thing for Coriolanus to have been killed.’”
As written, Coriolanus’s obsession with brutality, oppression, and reinforcing hierarchical power structures is what does him in. In part, this is one of the things that make the gender-flip casting so brilliant. Upholding the patriarchy is what’s killing Coriolanus long before anybody else wants him dead, so having a woman in this role isn’t just a subversive act, but rather a blatant condemnation of the patriarchy and its inherent violence.
The casting choice also re-frames Coriolanus’s mommy issues with his adviser and mother, Volumnia, who pushes her child to pursue politics no matter the cost.
“We talked a lot about what that original archetype is between this son who is beholden and deeply controlled by the mother,” O’Connell says. “We see it a lot in literature and classic literature, for sure, and mother-daughter is different. What is that? And what can that be? That’s what we’re exploring: this maternal aspiration and pushing of this child. She knows her child’s limitations: she is completely unable to be political.”
There are real-life correlations, of course, between Coriolanus and our contemporary times. As is almost always the case, the thematic relevance of a Shakespearean tragedy is ever-present. The volatile setting of this Coriolanus—the “not too distant future” and its accompanying political instability—doesn’t feel very far off to O’Connell.
“Right now the world feels pretty dark sometimes,” she says. “There are people in leadership roles who would take away rights and take away freedoms. How people galvanize and how people have a voice, it’s something that we think about every day. I also think seeing a woman play a part like this—or not a woman, seeing women, because there are lots of women in our company playing parts that are male parts traditionally. That isn’t saying something overt, it’s just that this is the world we now live in, and I think that’s important.”
Bard on the Beach presents Coriolanus at the Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre from next Wednesday (August 21) to September 15.