Coriolanus (Jonathan Cake) is Shakespeare’s most baffling protagonist, an ornery Roman general who seethes with contempt for both the political elite and the commoners. After the conquest of a Volscian city, Coriolanus returns home and briefly runs for consul. But he refuses to participate in symbolic gestures of respect for the plebeians and is summarily exiled. Late in the play, the commander-in-chief of the Roman army, Cominius (Tom Nelis), describes the general as “a kind of nothing,” a judgment that has been affirmed by generations of critics who have seen Coriolanus as shallow, unreflective, and immune to introspection. Bred for war, he has little interest in such peacetime leisures.
For these reasons, Coriolanus is an especially challenging role. But Cake is absolutely fantastic: stiff, uncomfortable in speech, and often playing his monosyllabic lines for laughs. His first, “Thanks,” is uttered with leaden gruffness, a moment of bathos that will be followed by others. Throughout this production, he will respond to the verbosity of his peers with a similar, almost dismissive delivery. “I will go wash,” Coriolanus announces when he returns from the battlefield, “And when my face is fair, you shall perceive / Whether I blush or no.” But in this tight performance, we never see beyond the blood-stained visage. The suggestion, I suspect, is that there is nothing more.
Staged in a shantytown flanked by oil drums and a run-down car, the Delacorte appears post-apocalyptic rather than classically Roman. Despite its subject of tyranny, director Daniel Sullivan steers clear of easy and unilluminating parallels to the current occupant of the White House—the one says little about the other—and the fight choreography is unusually effective; where I usually get the impression of actors dutifully hitting their marks, here the action appears spontaneous. Now, Coriolanus is surely no crowd-pleaser, and Sullivan’s revival does lag in the second half, but it is nevertheless a thoughtful and effective mounting of an endlessly challenging work.