Theater Review: Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Coriolanus” — Kicked to the Curb

By Bill Marx

Over the years I have seen several productions of Coriolanus, and this one is by far the most perfunctory.

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare in a new verse translation by Sean San José. Directed by A. Nora Long. Staged by Actors’ Shakespeare Project in partnership with Play On Shakespeare at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, through April 23.

Genevieve Simon and Jennie Israel in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Coriolanus. Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room before disposing of this thin gruel of a production of Coriolanus. Shakespeare wrote in English, so why in the world do we need Sean San José’s “new modern version translation”? The swap (gold for lead) is the final progression in an alarming development that theater artists (in England, mostly) have been warning about for decades.

The Tik Tok/Facebook/Instagram/Twitter generation no longer values the educational heft or aesthetic interest that’s necessary to understand and appreciate Shakespeare’s verse. Entertainment is about ease, not effort: reading or listening to the play before going to see a production is out of the question in today’s fast-serve culture. Once they buy their tickets, audiences expect to sit back and relax. Theater companies respect that consumer edict, perhaps to the point of self-extinction. The Bard’s poetry is difficult because it calls for concentration — so out it goes. It is replaced, at least here, with a prosaic linguistic product made to slide down easily. We are now tip-toeing into Joe Macbeth territory. The Bard is not being dumbed down so much as pushed the hell out of the way: aside from his plot, Shakespeare has pretty much left the building. “Greatest hits” phrases pop up from time to time in this Coriolanus, such as “a world elsewhere.” But so many memorable lines, such as the protagonist’s cry when he embraces his wife Virgilia, “O, a kiss / Long as my exile, sweet as my revenge!” are gone. Speeches have been denuded of their thematic complication and verbal beauty, all for the sake of making sure that everybody can follow along. It is a Pyrrhic victory.

Defenders argue that this is the only way to keep Shakespeare viable on stage. If audiences reject the language (as one director confessed to me, “There are too many words”) then replace the offending verbiage. Comfort is the name of the game, so Shakespeare’s poetry is kicked to the curb. Some attending this “translation” will no doubt begin to  wonder what all the fuss is about. Could the Bard be overrated? His dialogue sounds as pedestrian as the blather in your typical Netflix-ready screenplay. Why venture out to see a watered-down “translation” of King Lear when you can stay at home, grab some munchies, and watch an episode or two of Succession?

I have suggested one possible solution to this quandary. Instead of “translating” Shakespeare, adapt him to fit modern sensibilities. Brecht was fascinated by Coriolanus and worked on a version that bit into the script’s class divisions; Edward Bond lifted some of the characters and action from King Lear for his monumental Lear; Paula Vogel penned Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief. These dramas were inspired by Shakespeare’s genius, but contort, distort, and challenge it in ways that reflect current concerns. Hopefully, productions like these will make audiences curious about seeing the Bard’s plays performed as they have been for centuries — without the “benefits” of translation. Perhaps theater companies could set up discussion groups where audience members — guided by experts and performers — can go over these rich texts, learn about what makes them tick. If not, in the coming decades Shakespeare “in the original” will appeal to a dwindling coterie — as do so many of today’s poets. Those who are interested in Elizabethan drama will turn away from live theater and prefer to see the Bard on their big or little screens at home  — where they have the option of asking for subtitles.

Patrice Jean-Baptiste, Jules Talbot, and Jennie Israel in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Coriolanus. Photo: Nile Scott Studios

So, that gripe out of my system, this thin-as-air production deserves to be handled with dispatch. The staging is minimal to the max. Shakespeare’s verse is gone baby gone, the costumes are drab, the pacing is rat-a-tat-tat, the fight scenes are surprisingly inept. The eight-person cast, aside from Genevieve Simon as Coriolanus, play several different roles: there are few successful stabs at individualizing the various characterizations. They all smoosh together into a kind of lumpy snowball rolling downhill — the higher-ups sound pretty much like the commoners, which deaden the play’s crucial divisions, domestic and political. One wishes the production’s agile veterans, Jennie Israel (Volumnia) and Donna Sorbello (Menenius), had been given the Bard’s lines to speak instead of the mush they are forced to grapple with. As Coriolanus, Simon is a sprightly but superficial martial obsessive, far from that “dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie” death. Patrice Jean-Baptise’s forceful Aufidius strikes an effective note of feral cunning. (A suggestion: perhaps Play On Shakespeare might experiment — if it had the Coriolanian courage — with creating a hybrid concoction. Selected actors would speak Shakespeare’s poetry, others would deliver lines from the new verse version. The contrast would have the critical value of dramatizing just how much we are losing “in translation.”)

Why are Actors’ Shakespeare Project and Play On Shakespeare producing Coriolanus now? Given the density of contradictions in Shakespeare’s closest approach to a Greek tragedy — the poor versus the rich, the one versus the many, real news versus “fake” news — there is a lot of hot button-ness to choose from. For director A. Nora Long, it is the issue of the moment: “At the heart of the play [there] are a lot of questions about identity — what does it mean to be a citizen, a parent, a person …” For me, the characters pretty much know who they are; the rub is that they must master the perfidy necessary to smooth over the contradictory/hypocritical roles they are called on to play for the sake of survival. The text contains many references to acting, and in Shakespeare’s dramas that inevitably generates layers of falsity. But even if “identity” is at the center of the script, Long has not transformed this interpretation into a passionate or compelling dramatic experience. Over the years I have seen several productions of Coriolanus, and this one is by far the most perfunctory. Sometimes the director — out of desperation? — has the performers stomp their feet to drum up a “pressure cooker” atmosphere. Roman society is overheating! People are starving! Revolution is in the air! But the sound signifies no fury. For me, Coriolanus’s quickie demise didn’t generate any fear or pity — just relief that the ordeal was finally over for him … and for us.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

Recent Posts