TOM BABE'S production of Coriolanus, on first viewing, appears less the product of an overall concept than dozens of ideas expertly paced and acted. Not all of the ideas work, and some of them clash, Sarah Gates's costumes, for example, successfully stifle identification with any given period: nonetheless, the combination of plebeians dressed for a production of Pirates of Penzance and aristocrats looking like refugees from Flash Gordon tends to add to an initial confusion.
Babe's direction too succumbs largely to instinct and caprice; snatches of Brecht emerge now and then--in the cards which identify each setting, in the make-up on the plebeians, and in the declarative style in which Aufidius's servingmen proclaim the virtues of war over peace to the audience. But the production doesn't have much to do with Brecht and Babe just injects the touches at will.
Characterization is equally inconsistent. Stephen Kaplan's truly fascinating Menenius at times conveys Polonius-like age, at times wisdom, then steps out of character suggesting a Hollywood agent who has lot his client, then a deeply jealous suitor disappointed at Volumnia's success over his own failure.
Some more speculation: Babe's use of film and other media conflicts with his rather pedestrian notion of a crowd of puppets--clown-like figures unable to stand straight who exist only insofar as they are manipulated by the tribunes or swayed by mass instinct. The crowd is conceived as pantomime, the movies as a sophisticated blend of film and drama, and the two styles belong to two different kinds of production. Shakespeare made the crowd puppet-like enough; Babe extends the metaphor and is heavy-handed.
But with the exception of a wonderful section where we see (on film) two plebeians reading a newspaper transcript of Coriolanus's "I banish you!" speech, Babe carefully avoids the trap of showing masses influenced by media. The film clips, evenly spaced throughout, never interrupt the action. The technique works best in the scene between Aufidius and his Lieutenant. Babe plays only half the scene on stage, the second half on the film soundtrack: the stage blacks-out and we watch Coriolanus of film, still listening to Aufidius talk about him. Alfred Guzetti's camerawork on these clips is, in context, superb. Following the Peter Brook style of the film of Marat/Sade, Guzetti aims into lights, moves into faces, and exploits claustrophobia, creating a handsome chaos which supports Babe's pacing and the pervasive feeling of tension.
Equally interesting, if not always as successful, is Babe's substitution of a loudspeaker for the proverbial Shakespearian messenger: when a panicstricken Rome first hears that Coriolanus may be allied with the Volscians, Babe stages a fast dialogue between Menenius, the tribunes, and the loud speaker, eerie in the momentary illusion that the loud speaker is quite conscious of what the other three are saying. The use of film and speaker projection proves Babe's most successful instinct in Coriolanus and the device most fully resolved; the harrowing ending is played simultaneously on stage and film; Babe requires a dual concentration from the audience for the first time, thus magnifying the power of Coriolanus's death and achieving quite literally a grand finale, in that we must watch a rectangle more than 20 feet high by 20 feet wide.
The diverse elements of Babe's production clash worst in the play's first third--rendered almost entirely inaudible by poor sound on the film track and Michael Tschudin's silly music which underscores dialogue with all the precision of a dead organist slumped over his keyboard. But Babe's crowded battles, rendered more evocative than specific by bouncing light off shiny armour are, when best executed by Coriolanus's decidedly unconfident extras, unnervingly realistic and indicative of Babe's proclivity toward cinematic stage effect.
So it's a mixed bag and the sum total of Babe's ideas can only bring us to Coriolanus. Babe opts-out of the traditional director's game of characterizing Coriolanus by motivating his inability to humble himself before the plebeians. Corresponding to his entire approach, Babe emphasizes diverse characteristics of the man as situations arise. Strongest seems a perverse sense of humor: Coriolanus smiles and waves goodbye when he leaves Rome, as if he were leaving for summer camp. Tom Jones is neither larger-than-life, like Olivier (Stratford, 1960), or rich and petulant, like Ian Richardson (Stratford, 1967), and relies heavily on physical presence and quiet emphatic reading of dialogue.
I had a lot of fun watching Tom Jones; I liked the happy emergence of the killer in him whenever someone challenged him. His only contented moments in the middle acts came when faced by the blood-thirsty crowd--out comes the sword from the boot and Jones walks calmly in for the kill. Though he has a tendency to lapse into whining Burtonisms, Jones dominated the play: no mean feat considering the chaos with which Babe surrounds him.
Equally fine is Frances Gitter as his mother Volumnia, giving the most articulate and intelligent performance in a generally excellent cast. Frank Hartenstein's lighting added more to characterization than one dares hope for at the Loeb: a scene between Coriolanus and six others on a balcony proved remarkable in that only Coriolanus's shadow was projected onto the stage floor fifteen feet below, serving to isolate him completely from the other more reasonable characters.
Michael Boak's huge styrofoam-covered set blended the conventional Elizabethan stage with the architectural elements of a large handball court. Though sometimes unwieldy with film and action often uncomfortably high, the starkness works to good advantage especially in half-light. The stage floor is reportedly real cement, and any show with a real cement floor has got to be pretty good, at least as far as I'm concerned.