Coriolanus, directed by Nuno Cardoso for Ao Cabo Teatro @ Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II, Lisbon, Portugal. Seen on 25th January, 2014
Review by Francesca Rayner
An economic and social crisis on the scale of the one that currently afflicts Portugal brings forth unlikely heroes. The judges of the Constitutional Court, for example, have overturned successive pieces of government legislation on the grounds of unconstitutionality and prevented some of the worst excesses of neo-liberalism from being implemented without opposition. More recently, the police organized a protest about wages and conditions at the bottom of the steps leading to the Parliament. When a group of the protesters stormed up the steps, the police who were supposed to be guarding the building allowed their colleagues to pass as journalists filmed the event. The government moved quickly to remove the person in charge of the police and to castigate the historic Socialist leader, Mário Soares, for suggesting that this very public invasion of political space presaged more violent protests to come.
In such a context, a public stage dominated by a large set of steps and men in military fatigues is bound to have a political resonance and the opening scene of Nuno Cardoso’s Coriolanus reinforced this political parallel with a violent protest by masked citizens demanding an end to hunger. The protest was crushed as the First Citizen was left humiliated at the front of the stage after being stripped of his clothing and the scene was set for a very contemporary contextualization of Caius Marcius’ supposed triumph.
Nuno Cardoso’s previous two Shakespeare’s, Richard II in 2007 and Measure for Measure in 2012 were both equally politicized performances which sought, in the former, to examine the promiscuity between politics and the Portuguese obsession with football and, in the latter, to examine the increasing gap between those who govern and those who are governed. Both performances were centrally concerned with failures of political leadership and the failure to exercise democratic rights and responsibilities on the part of Portuguese citizens. These concerns also structure this Coriolanus, where political forgetting on the part of the citizens and contempt for the population on the part of the politicians drive the action. What this performance adds is a warning about the apparent attractiveness of absolutist heroic individuals in times of widespread political chaos, particularly when such an individual seems to offer a clear alternative to a media-conscious and opportunistic political class.
The primary advantage of the steps as a setting is that they clarify the rises and falls that occur throughout the play without the need for the performers to underscore excessively these changes. As Coriolanus’ troops march up and down the steps in military formation, for instance, their dominance of Roman politics is evident, while the sound of Volumnia’s high heels clicking down the steps as she greets her son on his return contrasts with their later reverse encounter at the top of the steps. The choreography of movement by Victor Hugo Pontes in this performance is superb and the physicality of the performances, with very visible spitting and sweat, brings home something of both the fascination and repulsion of the all-male society in which Coriolanus excels. His desertion of Rome for the Volscians and seeking after Aufidius become here less a deliberate political and homoerotic calculation (although both are present) than a need to find another all-male grouping with similar overtly militaristic values and without the inconveniences of pleasing the population and the politicians or the presence of Volumnia. The actor playing Coriolanus (Albano Jerónimo) performed as Antonio in another national theatre production of The Merchant of Venice, but he is more well-known for his glamorous TV roles. Inevitably, this makes his Coriolanus a figure who attracts audience empathy, especially when he refuses to exhibit his wounds for a media and popular circus, and runs the risk of constructing Coriolanus as a tragic hero, betrayed by all, and who can be accused at most of extreme naivety. In the interval, members of the audience were making comments along these lines. However, while a balance between bitterness and pride structured Jerónimo’s performance in the first half, this gave way to a rather aimless bewilderment in the second. This had the advantage of removing an excessive focus on the figure of Coriolanus and placing it instead on the structures of power that first elevate and then destroy him, both Roman and Volscian. In this context, the revolver shot that killed him was less a surprise than the inevitable culmination of a fall without a corresponding rise in awareness. In a skilful comic set piece, for instance, the Volscian cooks (male and female) who met Coriolanus on his arrival reminded the audience that the presence of the citizens would play as large a part in Volscian as in Roman society and, as such, that Coriolanus was unlikely to find the ideal society that he has been taught to desire from which the lower classes would be completely excluded.
The performances overall were excellent, with a clear anchoring of the translation by Fernando Villas-Boas in the concrete physicality of the performances and a notable emphasis on the work of the collective over the creation of individual roles. Even so, a coolly determined Aufidius (Daniel Pinto), a Volumnia (Ana Bustorff) who overpowered her son with the trappings of common sense rather than her charisma and a Menenius (Pedro Frias) who brought something of the cynical bonhomie of his last performance as the Duke in Measure for Measure to his role stood out here. Many of the performers played two or three roles in this performance, deconstructing any absolute distinction between Romans and Volscians and increasing the presence of women within a play more notable for their absence. The only part which was perhaps underplayed was that of Virgilia (Catarina Lacerda) who began the performance struggling to find a space in a society where public affairs were a male preserve, but who then appeared at a cocktail party to honour Caius Marcius as a token trophy wife, leaving undeveloped this early hint at an anti-militaristic check on the play’s military values. This was, however, the only moot point in a brutally effective deconstruction of a moribund political regime.