The Scriblerianne

September 3, 2008

The Problem with Coriolanus

Filed under: entertainment — scriblerienne @ 5:43 pm
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I went to the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s production of Coriolanus this weekend and left during intermission.  Bad English professor, bad!  But there were several problems with the production that made me ask myself, “Do I need to stay through this?  No.  So why not leave now and beat the traffic?”  So I did.

Problem #1:  Lack of familiarity with the play.  I read Coriolanus back in grad school, and didn’t brush up on it before I went.  So I had to rely on the summary (not a very exciting one) in the program and the language to understand the plot.  Coupled with sound problems, this made it hard for me to follow along.  Now imagine if you’ve never read or heard of this play, and you show up.  Can’t see how it would be very compelling to stick around.

Problem #2:  Although the play’s production seemed based on a mix of Russian post-constructivism and punk rock, I think it would have fared better done in traditional Roman attire.  The values of the play’s characters and themes are antithetical to contemporary American values.  For example, Coriolanus’s mother sounds more giddy and delusional about her son’s wounds, when she should sound austere and proud. We should find her forbidding, even monstrous. The stern values of the Roman republic doesn’t come through in this production.  If HBO’s Rome could make the world of the late republic come to life, this production could have done so also.

Then there’s the problem of audience sympathy. The plebians were played mostly by members of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s apprentice program and fresh-faced teenagers do not make threatening plebes.  Also, the direction seemed to want us to feel some sympathy for them.  After all, they’re demanding corn which they believe the aristocracy (the senatorial class) is hoarding–that’s commendable, right?  Well, the problem with this is Coriolanus was written in 1607-08, in an England which saw the mob or common people as political trouble.  They’re not supposed to be sympathetic.  If the plebes had come out in the play’s beginning as demanding and threatening, sneering at the audience “You have a $30 picnic from Whole Foods!  I have nothing!” that would have been a more appopriate tone for the treatment of the mob.  The audience would have understood Coriolanus’s contempt of them.  But that leads to a greater problem:

3.  Conflicting vision.  The Nashville Shakespeare Festival is intended to bring the Bard to a widely varied audience–first-time playgoers, casual Shakespeare fans, families with children, young people etc.  It’s free, it’s out in the park, it’s meant to be a pleasant evening where picnicking is encouraged.  If you have plebians roaming the audience and snarling at them, you disturb the atmosphere.  On the other hand, the co-sponsor of this production, Naked Stages is edgier and more experimental–thus the choice of this play and the production.  They may have wanted to do an edgier production, but the Nashville Shakespeare Festival can’t risk alienating its audience and losing funding.  So this muddied the interpretation of the play.

Last, but not least–Coriolanus?  In the park?  With kids and picnics?  Not gonna work.  This is a Shakespeare connoisseur’s play, not a well-known one with wide appeal.  If you want to introduce kids, young adults and non-playgoers to Shakespeare in a casual atmosphere, stick with the crowdpleasers:  Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night.  If you want to do something more serious, try Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth–well-known tragedies.  Do The Tempest if you want some depth, fantasy and spectacle.  If you know your mission, stick to it, even if it chafes your experimental urges.  Save those for the winter.

On the other hand,  the evening was not entirely a disappointment.  I got to go to Centennial Park, which I haven’t visited in a while.  I had forgotten how lovely it is, like Central Park’s small-town baby sister.

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