‘Coriolanus’ runs through Aug. 11 at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. For details on obtaining free tickets visit publictheater.org.
Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy “Coriolanus” has not been seen at Shakespeare in the Park for 40 years. And judging by the long and lumbering production currently on display at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, the Public Theater is probably unlikely to present it again here anytime soon.
This is not to say that “Coriolanus” does not have its merits, including a raging lead character, a Lady Macbeth-like supporting role and timely food for thought about the complicated intersection of public service, public opinion and public relations. Also at the forefront — the manipulation of democracy by encouraging division and resentment among citizens.
Following an impressive military victory, the hotheaded Roman soldier Caius Martius Coriolanus (Jonathan Cake) is urged by his calculating and coolheaded mother Volumnia (Kate Burton) to run for political office, which ought to be a piece of cake — were it not for the fact that Coriolanus has always been unapologetically elitist and disdainful of the masses.
His forced attempt at campaigning earns him disdain instead of votes and a potential death sentence. In reaction, Coriolanus flees Rome and offers to assist Aufidius (Louis Cancelmi), longtime enemy to both Rome and Coriolanus, in invading his home city, regardless of the danger it may present to his family and friends.
Daniel Sullivan, who has staged numerous Shakespeare in the Park productions in recent years (including “The Merchant of Venice” with Al Pacino), has shifted the play (originally set in the early days of the Roman Republic) to a post-apocalyptic future where society is struggling to rebuilt itself.
Visually, the production is marked by revolving towers of metal sheeting, soiled clothing and dirty faces. It ought to be nicknamed “Junkyard Coriolanus” or “Mad Max Coriolanus.”
Despite the luxuries of a large cast and wide-open playing space, Sullivan’s straightforward three-hour staging does not overcome the inherent difficulties in presenting “Coriolanus,” including the slow and repetitive scenes of dialogue throughout the first half of the play. It too often feels tedious and lacking in momentum.
Also problematic is Cake’s overly broad lead performance, which paints Coriolanus as a petulant and immature child. It is so obnoxious and boorish that virtually all ambiguity and complexity has been removed and more subtle and shaded performances (including Burton’s dignified Volumnia and Cancelmi’s suspicious Aufidius) get overshadowed.
The most notable interpretations of “Coriolanus” in recent years have treated it as a fast-paced, action-packed thrillers, including the 2011 Ralph Fiennes film and Robert LePage’s 2018 staging at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. This production would have benefited from that kind of sharp focus, fluidity and visual intensity.