British actor Jonathan Cake provides a powerful center to the Public Theater’s dynamic production of “Coriolanus,” part of the Public’s free Shakespeare offerings in Central Park. Shakespeare’s violent, often bloody play is a challenging drama to stage. It involves heroism, betrayal, stubbornness, and familial relationships against a background of military, political and class conflict. Under Daniel Sullivan’s excitingly incisive direction and with wizardry by the technical staff as well as all-around excellent acting, this “Coriolanus” stands out as a major success.
Cake cut his teeth on Shakespeare in England before gaining international prominence. It shows. He is a dominant force in the title role, which is difficult because of the complexities the Bard has given the character. Caius Martius Coriolanus is no Mr. Nice Guy. He fights heroically as a military leader against enemies who would conquer Rome and is most at home on the battlefield. But when he returns bloodied from the warfare, and is rewarded with the position of Consul, he shows his contempt for the common man and won’t knuckle under to what is expected of him by politicians in power. This stirs resentment, which ultimately leads to his banishment.
What does he do? Coriolanus decides to join the forces against whom he caused so much death and destruction in his earlier triumph. Not surprisingly, he is soon turned upon, with the result that he meets a tragic end. Given his conflicted persona and condescending attitude, it is hard to feel sorry for him. Thus Cake is presented with the challenge of being a fallen hero as well as someone who is at least partly responsible for his fate.
Kate Burton works up passion as Coriolanus’ tough-minded mother Volumina, who pleads with him to relent and not risk his life. Angry and desperate, she does her best to be persuasive and take advantage of his closeness with her. Volumina finds an ally in Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, stoically played by Nneka Okafor, but Coriolanus is not one to heed advice.
Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has provided a set dominated by ramshackle buildings that look as if stitched together with castaway metallic junk. Most of the costumes (designed by Kaye Voyce) are what might be called rabble-modern, not traditionally Shakespearean, which provides an update that gives the conflicts a contemporary edge without belaboring the point. The lighting for the production is spectacular as designed by Japhy Weideman, in tandem with the effective sound design by Jessica Paz. Steve Rankin is fight director, contributing importantly in capturing the aura of battlefield bloodshed.
A large cast infuses the production and the overall effect is one of a well-coordinated drama that pulsates with tension throughout. The many contributions notwithstanding, it is hard to take one’s attention from Cake, such is the command that he asserts with his strong stage presence, impressive voice and delivery of the Bard’s pungent lines with untmost clarity. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, entrances at Central Park West at 81st Street or Fifth Avenue at 79th Street. Reviewed August 6, 2019.