By William Shakespeare. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. A Bard on the Beach production. At the Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre on Sunday, August 25. Continues until September 21
Coriolanus is one of William Shakespeare’s messiest, most morally confusing and cynical plays. Bard on the Beach’s production—the first Coriolanus in the company’s 30-year history—doesn’t attempt to fix any of that; rather, it embraces all of those complicated pieces, gender-flips the title character and her sworn enemy, and showcases performances so powerful they practically leap off the stage.
Director Dean Paul Gibson sets his Coriolanus in a broken-down Rome in the not-so-distant future, following a solar-flare disaster that has knocked out all digital communications. Impoverished people suffering famine begin rising up against the elites, threatening Rome from within, while war is also breaking out between Rome and the neighbouring region of Volsci. Caius Martius (Moya O’Connell), a merciless warrior, has nothing but contempt for the starving people, whom she labels “dissentious rogues”. After Martius leads Rome in the battle over the city of Corioli, and soundly defeats her lifelong rival, Tullus Aufidius (Marci T. House), and the Volscian army, she is welcomed back to Rome as a hero and given the name Coriolanus.
She quickly gains favour with the citizens, and is even nominated for office, but two senators, panicked at her popularity, manage to turn the people against her. Unable to humble herself before either the plebeians or the patricians, Coriolanus lashes out, is labelled a traitor, and is banished. Refusing to retreat quietly, she seeks out Aufidius to help her defeat Rome and exact her revenge.
Gibson elicits some incredible performances from his cast, particularly O’Connell. This is a hugely physical role, and not just in the fighting, but in the ways in which she conveys the variations of Coriolanus’s scathing self-righteousness, mercenary coldness, hair-trigger volatility, and occasional vulnerability. It’s fascinating to observe how O’Connell carries Coriolanus’s rage in her body, taut and tense at first, and how it consumes Coriolanus as her obsession with vengeance takes hold.
The gender-flip casting illustrates how the character of Coriolanus is really a warning about the dangers of turning men into killing machines and coding that as a noble expression of masculinity.
House brings a seductive yet threatening quality to Aufidius, making the character far more memorable than as written. The scenes between O’Connell and Colleen Wheeler, as Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, are a master class in acting. The relationship here—now between mother and daughter, rather than mother and son—takes on different connotations as they argue power, persuasiveness, and likability.
Some of the technical elements of Coriolanus are wanting—the projections feel more like distractions than effective sources of setting or context, and the fight sequences are too slow to feel truly threatening. But the excellent cast is all that you really need to fully appreciate this long overdue staging.