Dystopian Coriolanus looks stunning, fails to connect emotionally

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Coriolanus | Bard on the Beach | Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Tent, Vanier Park | August 21 – September 21, 2019

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known and seldom-performed plays, so it’s no surprise that the first-ever production of this work at Bard on the Beach, directed by Bard regular Dean Paul Gibson, was highly-anticipated. Moya O’Connell stars as the ruthless fighter who is betrayed and exiled. Her confident, aggressive performance is the highlight, while the futuristic set and costumes make the production look stunning.

Despite these compelling elements, the overall production fell flat and I found it difficult to become invested in the story and relate to the characters. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that, unlike many of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, Coriolanus doesn’t soliloquize or let the audience know how she is feeling. O’Connell did her best with the material, portraying Coriolanus as a difficult, mostly unsympathetic hero who makes a series of ill-informed decisions motivated by jealousy, anger, and ego. It is nice to see the traditionally male role portrayed by a woman. The choice works very well, giving her relationships new qualities that seem to intensify the tensions.

Something else I found troublesome was a lack of comic relief, and a seemingly endless series of battle scenes that become repetitive. With most of Shakespeare’s tragedies or histories, there are some moments of comedy to break up the serious tone, but here there are very few moments that might make an audience smile.

But during all of this, there were the beautiful costumes by Barbara Claydon and sets by Pam Johnson to feast our eyes upon. There is a futuristic dystopian feeling to the whole thing, reminiscent of a Mad Max world of flames and barren landscapes. Jamie Nesbitt’s projections on rotating canvas panels also gave context and provided some imagery to ground us in a particular setting. Overall, it was cinematic.

I don’t think the dialogue is Shakespeare’s best or wittiest, but there are a few memorable lines, such as Menenius (Shawn Macdonald), Coriolanus’ father saying “More of your conversation would infect my brain” and her mother, Volumnia (Colleen Wheeler) saying “Anger is my meat.”  

In the end, Coriolanus’ downfall is that she doesn’t respect the common people and does not want to show them her battle scars, which is the custom. Although she is the greatest war hero, they deny her and she is exiled. She teams up with her arch rival, Aufidius (Marci T. House), and plans to return to Rome to destroy those who banished her. Her mother pleads with her, but, she retorts in another memorable line, “I shall be loved when I am lack’d.”   

Focusing on Coriolanus and her struggles with loyalty, betrayal, revenge, and politics, this story is still highly relevant — but somehow it wasn’t able to connect on an emotional level.

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