Ask random Shakespeare fans what their favorite is among the Bard’s plays, and the likelihood is very low that many – if indeed any, unless they’re actors – will mention Coriolanus.
T. S. Eliot reportedly preferred it to Hamlet, but most audiences find it a tough play to like. And it tends not to get staged very often, so many have never had a chance to see it performed. The exception occurs in periods of social unrest and unpopular military campaigns, when the tragedy’s themes begin to seem more pertinent to modern times.
What makes the play, set during ancient Rome’s conflict with the Volscians, so off-putting to many readers and potential audiences is the highly flawed personality of the protagonist. Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a bold, talented and principled military leader, but he’s crippled by his unbending pride and unwillingness to compromise. His contempt for the lower classes of his city – who riot in the streets because they are starving due to wartime grain rationing – may have played well with Shakespeare’s royal patrons, but it doesn’t jibe with contemporary democratic values. Coriolanus comes home a war hero and runs for consul, but eventually goes over to the enemy side after his political opponents contrive to have him banished for his outspoken snobbery. Predictably, there’s no happy ending for anyone.
But what makes Coriolanus so challenging to audiences is precisely what makes the character so enticing to actors at a certain point in their careers. The general is neither an outright villain like Macbeth nor a hero like Hamlet, and he’s too unsympathetic to fit the category of antihero. He’s ethical and honorable, according to his own terms, but he’s undeniably a stiff in any era, and comes off as a one-percenter jerk in our own day. In other words, it’s a complicated role that an actor can really get his teeth into. Making things meatier is the renowned warrior’s toxic, codependent relationship with his mother Volumnia: one of literature’s great pushy stage Moms, falling somewhere in the middle of the continuum between Mama Rose in Gypsy and Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate.
These being unsettled times, marked by unpopular wars and lots of political backstabbing, revivals of Coriolanus are on the upswing. And one of the hot contemporary actors recently tempted to jump into the role was Tom Hiddleston, best-known to American audiences for his performances as the slightly-mad-but-charismatic bad guy Loki in the Thor and Avengers movie franchises. Hiddleston has been getting enthusiastic notices for his nuanced interpretation of the embattled Roman in the production of Coriolanus by Britain’s Donmar Warehouse, directed by Josie Rourke. Also starring are Mark Gatiss as the senator Menenius, Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, Hadley Fraser as the Volscian commander Aufidius and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia, with Alfred Enoch as Titus Lartius, who later went on to become Rome’s first dictator.
The London run is ending this week, but a performance on January 30 was captured for posterity by the National Theatre Live from London folks. Serious Shakespeare aficionados and Marvel Comics geeks alike should be pleased to hear that two cinemas in our area will be screening it next week: On Wednesday, February 19 at 1:30 p.m., Coriolanus will be shown at Upstate Films Rhinebeck, with tickets going for $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and students and $11 for Upstate members. And on Sunday, February 23 at 2 p.m., there will be a screening at the Rosendale Theatre, at $12 general admission and $10 for Rosendale Theatre Collective members.
Check it out, and discover a Shakespeare work that isn’t overly familiar and that resonates with today’s geopolitical zeitgeist – or just feast your eyes on that guy who got voted Sexiest Man Alive by MTV readers in December. For more information, call the Rosendale Theatre at (845) 658-8989 or Upstate Films Rhinebeck at (845) 876-2515.
London National Theatre Live’s Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston, Wednesday, February 19, 1:30 p.m., $15/$13/$11, Upstate Films, 6415 Montgomery Street/Route 9, Rhinebeck, (845) 876-2515, https://upstatefilms.org; Sunday, February 23, 2 p.m., $12/$10, Rosendale Theatre, 408 Main Street, Rosendale, (845) 658-8989, https://rosendaletheatre.org.