We see productions of Shakespeare plays that are set in a post-apocalyptic future all the time. There’s something tempting about pushing these texts into an unestablished world, where the interpersonal dynamics can become whatever they need to be to support the play and where the props and costumes can come from a mix of periods and styles to support whatever aesthetic the director desires. It’s crucial to establish the rules of whatever new world you’re building, though, and that’s where these productions sometimes run afoul: in creating rules that don’t make sense for the play or in an inconsistency in following the rules you’ve created. They can feel gimmicky, like they’re placing stylization over substance, or they can be boring, with the futuristic elements stripping the meat from the play.
Thankfully, Daniel Sullivan’s production of Coriolanus in Central Park avoids these traps. Beowulf Borrit’s set is strewn with the detritus of single-use plastic, the floorboards are scorched from uninhabitable temperatures, and the walls are slapdash pieces of tacked-up metal that open, close, and spin to regulate coming and going. Sullivan’s production is set in the aftermath of an ecological catastrophe, but it doesn’t make the play about its setting. Instead, Sullivan uses this near-future as a fast-forward device to show both the similarities between Caius Martius Coriolanus’ political environment and our own. This Coriolanus is a peek at what’s to come once the climate collapses and our governmental structure is destroyed–two events that are not exactly related, but aren’t unrelated, either.
The future that Sullivan imagines with this staging is, in some ways, a return to the past. There are no cell phones, no internet, and no guns. There’s no video surveillance. There is hand-to-hand, and knife-to-body combat (the thrilling and believable fight direction is by Steve Rankin). There is an ominous steam that emits from beneath the stage until it becomes a full blown fire. There are the voices of the powerful and the voices of the weak in direct conversation with each other. It’s analog communication; the digital infrastructure is no more. It’s a simplification of the future that focuses the play on what is spoken.
In the title role, Jonathan Cake brings his signature clarity and veracity to Caius Martius’ speeches. The first scene, rapid-fire dialogue between the citizens in the midst of a grain shortage, is interrupted by Cake’s war hero who takes his time with the words, relishing each utterance. This luxuriating after so much quickness immediately depicts Caius Martius’ entitlement: he has the privilege to expend time on words. He’s obsequious in this first speech, raising flags that this guy is probably an asshole. But Cake manages, over the course of the play, to show how Caius Martius is swept up by his honorific (“Coriolanus” is a title bestowed on him for his successes) and then crushed when this ego boost is taken away from him. He’s never exactly sympathetic, but he doesn’t need to be. Cake brings out the complexity of Shakespeare’s writing anyway–we don’t have to like or agree with him, but we at least understand what he’s feeling.
He also lets us see how present his mother, Volumina (Kate Burton), is in his mind. Burton’s performance is commanding in a way that overrules even her son, the center of this play. It’s easy to see where his ambition and his endless self-esteem come from. Burton wears a white, shoulder-length wig (by Tom Watson) that is as elegant as anything could be in this devastated future. In subtle ways like this, Sullivan’s production shows that this family is the ruling class, even without a title. The Martius house has two pieces of furniture, an upholstered chair and a mirror, signifying both their relative wealth above the dirty citizens in the streets and their self-obsession. Volumina councils her son on controlling his impulses when confronting his constituents (for whom he has expressed vast contempt), but it’s ultimately for naught and the first half ends with Volumina, high above the stage, fuming that her son has been knocked from his lofty position.
As Martius is banished from Rome, things get, I’m just gonna say it, kinda gay. With nowhere else to turn, he shacks up with his mortal enemy, Tullus Aufidius (Louis Cancelmi). Upon arrival on his doorstep, Aufidius remarks:
Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold…
I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ‘twist thyself and me;
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat,
And waked half dead with nothing.
They don’t make out, but they might as well. Aufidius and Martius have a cat-and-mouse kind of relationship, rife with tension that is undeniably erotic. Costume designer Kaye Voyce has them both wear tanktops that expose their rippling biceps and Cake wears tight Under Armour joggers. They make a pact to seek vengeance on Rome together despite the fact that Martius’ pregnant wife, son, and mother are still there. His banishment from Rome is not only related to his political position, but it’s also a banishment from his heterosexual life–he chooses to leave them behind to be with this man he hate-loves.
Cancelmi plays all of this from behind a thick beard with only a fixed, penetrating gaze that is both transparent and mysterious. The production does not explicitly confirm or deny the homoeroticism of their relationship, but it’s palpable. When Volumina succeeds in persuading Martius to call off his attacks on Rome, Aufidius is betrayed and they revert to being adversaries. Martius has not only rejected the adopted home that welcomed him when he was expelled, but also the open arms that embraced him.
This is only the third time Coriolanus has been produced at the Delacorte and the last time was forty years ago. Sullivan’s production is a thoughtful, visually arresting reading of the play. Sullivan connects it to our present political climate (an entitled leader has disdain for the common people), but doesn’t pander to the audience or over-explain everything at the text’s expense like the Public’s 2017 production of Julius Caesar. Instead, he lets us hear the text, spoken by first rate actors like Cake and Burton, and draw our own connections. They’re obvious enough as it is. The future that this Coriolanus depicts is all too real and not so far away and all it takes is a 410 year old play to show us that.