The first scene we looked at has Coriolanus encountering Lartius as they make their way to the market-place to accept the consulship. Coriolanus asks Lartius about Aufidius, and Lartius laughs off Aufidius’ hatred of Coriolanus. We explored the idea of Coriolanus’ feelings for Aufidius being underneath the surface; so that he emotionally winces at Lartius saying “he hated your person most.” With this reading there was warmth in the line “I wish I had cause to seek him [in Antium]”, and Coriolanus quickly changed tone to qualify it with “…To oppose his hatred fully.” I think this is a valuable vein to mine – one which can be picked up later when Coriolanus goes to join Aufidius – and finally will resonate when Aufidius kills him at the end. It is a sharply different side of Coriolanus we see as soon as the tribunes enter and scorn is poured on them for leading the people by the nose. “Are these your herd?” Coriolanus asks them.
The next scene involves Menenius trying to manage the crowd and the tribunes, with the goal of setting things right between them and Coriolanus. We set up the status relationships in the staging, with Menenius centre stage behind a lectern, the tribunes on either side with one foot on stage, and the people as a
gathering at the foot of the stage. We played with the crowd being much more vocally participatory than the given single line of “no, no, no” – responding to the tribunes’ rhetoric. Sicinius calls Coriolanus a “viperous traitor” and the crowd responds “traitor, traitor!”. Sicinius says “he dies tonight”, and the crowd erupts “he dies! he dies!”. All of this gives something for Menenius to react against and contain; and from his position on stage, his ability to do this endows him with added authority. There is a line in this scene that editors assign either to Sicinius or Menenius: “The service of the foot…is not then respected for what it was before.” Given to Sicinius it is a statement, and one of three consecutive short speeches by the tribunes. In Menenius’ mouth it becomes a question, and continues the pattern of Menenius speaking every second line – and so trying to hold the floor. We tried it both ways, and I much preferred the latter. Menenius has already allowed that Coriolanus is a diseased limb; and now he says “but does that mean we don’t respect him for what he did before?”
Our third scene was back at Coriolanus’ house, where the patricians plan their next move. Central to this scene is the relationship between Coriolanus and Volumnia. We had Coriolanus start sitting on a chair, downstage left, huddled up like a little boy, sulking in a corner. Volumnia was seated, quietly still and upright, diagonally opposite. Menenius was upstage left, standing and leaning in to watch the situation as Cominius arrived to give the latest news from the market place – a lone animated figured in this otherwise relatively still picture. Coriolanus is the boy, getting increasingly worked up over the idea of having to abase himself to the people, even whining in parts. We had him stand only at “Well, I will do’t.” – but then not move toward the door. This brings Volumnia across to him, soothing him with “…to have my praise for this, perform a part thou hast not done before.” Coriolanus’ response juxtaposes his
pride in words such as “throat of war”, “drum” and “armed knees” with his disgust at “harlot’s spirit”, “small as an eunuch” and “alms”. We found a terrifically powerful moment in this speech. The image of begging that Coriolanus draws for himself is too much and he snaps ferociously at his mother with “I will not do’t”. Volumnia’s response to this outburst was to withdraw; the soothing tone from her previous speech was gone and she seemed to be slightly shaken by his “dangerous stoutness”. She seemed to be withdrawing her love. After “own thy pride thyself” she turns to go. This in turn led to a complete change in tone from Coriolanus, who becomes the boy desperate for his mother’s approval. He stops her at the door with his speech, but she never turns to face him. Instead, she delivers “do your will” and departs. This is her trump card – and it works every time.
For our last scene our time was truncated – and we just had time to stage it as an echo of the scene with Menenius at the lectern above. This time Coriolanus is centre stage, flanked by Cominius and Menenius. The tribunes have one foot each on the stage and the people are a responsive crowd in the pit. We played with a quietly contemptuous Coriolanus, who literally turns his back at the end of the speech, delivering “there is a world elsewhere” with his back to the audience. This worked nicely – though there are many ways to play this – and we’ll work in time try them out next week!
Re-published with permission from the Toronto Shakespeare Workshop (https://www.meetup.com/Toronto-Shakespeare-in-Performance-Workshop/)
Organiser: Justin Hay