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Friday 25 October 2019

10 minutes read time


Acting the hard man

Jonathan Cake spent the summer playing Coriolanus in New York’s Central Park and found that Shakespeare’s last great tragic hero still has plenty to say

March 2019
Chattanooga, Tennessee

My kids are riding on an alarmingly vertiginous Airbnb rope swing and I find myself hissing at them:

“You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek of the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I BANISH YOU!”

The kids are used to me talking like this to them, not just because of my spring-break gyp, far from our California bubble and anything unfried, on a road trip through Confederate flag-waving MAGA country, but because I’m brushing up my Coriolanus. Shakespeare’s final tragedy is about to be performed by the Public Theater, the latest offering in their famous Free Shakespeare in the Park festival, a summer tradition in New York as inherent to the city’s identity as the US Open tennis, the Naked Cowboy in Times Square, and Alec Baldwin punching a photographer. The Public want me to play Coriolanus.

The last time they did it was precisely 40 years ago, with some hack called Morgan Freeman in the title role. Another journeyman called Denzel Washington played a spear-carrier. American theatres almost never perform this play. I’m thrilled by the offer. At the same time I’m worried that Morgan and Denzel know something I don’t. That it’s an unperformable play. That 40 years wasn’t long enough to get the stink out of the theatre. I suddenly feel like my daughter on the rope swing, thrilled by the height but nauseated by the possibility of falling. I suddenly feel like shoving her to one side, jumping on the rope swing, and then, when I’m sailing high above the Tennessee ground, letting go.

Pluto and hell!
All hurt behind! Backs red, and faces pale
With flight and agued fear!

A broken limb or two should see me safely through the summer and away from any onstage humiliation, the pain and memory of which would surely last much longer.

Instead I turn and look at the Tennessee backwoods and consider that when Coriolanus was first performed for James I the invasion and pillage of this new world had just begun. Jamestown, the settlement that bore his name, had been established in neighbouring Virginia just a year or two before and a hell unleashed on the indigenous people of this country as unforgiving as anything imagined by Coriolanus:

“…to ravish your own daughters and
To melt the city leads upon your pates,
To see your wives dishonored to your noses
Your temples burned in their cement…”

I abandon my children to the watertight Airbnb disclaimer, walk back inside and take the part.


April 2019
Topanga Canyon, California

Grey cloud is sluicing the Santa Monica Mountains outside. My mind is doing something similar, drifting from the words I should be learning to anxiety about getting myself extremely fit for this role.

A text from Dominic Dromgoole, theatre and film director: “Rumour has it that you’re having another pop at Old Grumpyboots.” Dominic was the shiny new artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in 2006 when he directed me as Coriolanus in the inaugural show of his regime. Thirteen years, two kids and a relocation to America later, I recall troublingly little about that production. Particularly, it turns out, the very many lines.

Except I can remember that we talked a lot about Roy Keane, Manchester United’s Irish midfield warrior, his stroppy walkout from the then recent World Cup (“Stick it up yer bollocks”, as pithy as anything Coriolanus can conjure) and his pathological need to be contrary, so similar to the Roman:

He seeks their hate with greater devotion than can render it him…”

And I remember I had a very cool death, stabbed and falling, rock-star style, into the yard of the Globe, among the standing punters unique to that theatre, then passed above the heads of the crowd. I also remember being dismayed when Dominic insisted that I come back out after this show-stopping death to perform the traditional Elizabethan post-play jig. “Jig?!” I said. “Fucking jig? Tough guys don’t jig!” Trust me, he reassured, the jig works. I sheepishly emerged after the first preview, half-heartedly capering downstage in my pointy shoes. It was like Oasis coming on stage at Knebworth. Those Elizabethans – and Dominic Dromgoole – knew a thing or two about cathartic release.

Jonathan Cake as Coriolanus during Free Shakespeare in the Park

I also remembered secretly feeling, at the age of 39, slightly too old for the part. Coriolanus is characterised as an overgrown boy, a man child, and his whole identity exudes a kind of electrical current of restless energy.

But 13 years older than that? Ah well, I reasoned, so much is made in the play of Coriolanus’s scars, his almost fetishised “marks of merit, the wounds received for his country” and everyone’s desire to gawp at them. For better or worse, I feel I have more scars to show the people.


May 2019
The Public Theater, New York City

Thirty of us are crowded around a slim, commanding figure in our rehearsal space, the Newman, largest of the three auditoria at the Public. The commanding figure is still commanding despite playing with what appears to be a post-apocalyptic dollhouse.

Daniel Sullivan, our director, is explaining his concept for the setting of this production, using the design model, the world of the play in miniature.

When Dan explains something, we all listen. He has directed Tom Hanks as Falstaff, Al Pacino as Shylock; he’s the Yoda of New York theatre and Shakespeare in the Park in particular. So much so that he almost gave his life for it, falling down an open trap door on the Delacorte stage 12 years ago and sustaining horrific injuries. He was back directing in that theatre the next summer.

Dan’s plan takes its cue from David Wallace-Wells’s almost unendurable book The Uninhabitable Earth. Unendurable because the climate-ravaged vision of societal and economic breakdown it offers is so persuasive and yet so beautifully written. Dan’s idea is that Shakespeare’s play, which presents the moment that ancient Rome tries to transition from tribal violence (where Coriolanus thrives) to the first spasm of democracy (where he falls), can only find an equivalent in our future, the future that Wallace-Wells presents so vividly. He wants the production to imagine a time, 80 or a hundred years from now, after a climate apocalypse has broken like a global typhoon and returned its survivors to a state akin to ancient Rome.

Grounding the play in such sheer desperation leaves us all silent. Performing it in the open air, in the middle of Manhattan, as today’s city teems around us, feels deeply poignant. The air suddenly seems thicker, the screams of the sirens more alarming. It’s rare that the stakes evoked by a theatre production are also the stakes of the audience.


6 June
Lafayette St, NYC

I’m in a cafe, feeling depressed at the virtue of my relentlessly healthy lunch and how all my gym visits seem unable to turn me back into a young man, when I start reading about the 75th anniversary of D-Day. John Eden, 94, was a 19-year-old boy in the 12th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. “Don’t forget,” I read, “I was a terrified little lad.”

Shakespeare is forensically precise about Coriolanus’s first experience of violence. “To a cruel war I sent him,” says Volumnia, his mother. Coriolanus was 16. He met Tarquin, the fearsome Roman rebel king, and Tarquin, Shakespeare painstakingly enumerates, stabbed him seven times in the body. Seven times. I think of the 16-year-old son of the friends I’m staying with in Brooklyn and shudder.

Opposite Kate Burton’s Volumnia

So many of the D-Day survivors recall that first encounter with the extreme trauma of violence as a kind of stopped clock. I feel for the first time a kind of release from my concern about my age and fitness to play this part. If a part of him froze at 16, so much of his behaviour makes sense to me. Moody, instinctively rebellious, devoted to and simultaneously at war with his mother, unswervingly idealistic, as suspicious of phonies as a kind of weaponised Holden Caulfield. When his mother and friends are urging him to compromise, to play the obsequious politician and beg the people’s forgiveness, Coriolanus, hurt, confused and betrayed, erupts with words that sound like any modern teenager:

I will not do it,
Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth…” [my emphasis]

So much of what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder is in Shakespeare’s depiction of this man, including, as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association describes it, anhedonia: the inability to experience pleasure. Maybe it doesn’t matter that I’m 50 if inside he’s a broken 16-year-old, his development savagely arrested, relentlessly trying – and failing – to cover it up.


13 July
Technical rehearsal, Delacorte Theater, NYC

It’s tech week, when a production moves into the theatre and goes through the often painful – and painfully slow – business of adding lights, sound, costumes, props, stage machinery – all a play’s moving parts – to what the actors have rehearsed. We’re stuck on a scene that has been a stone in our collective Birkenstocks for six weeks now: Act 3, scene 1. We all know why. It’s bloody hard. It’s one of Shakespeare’s extraordinary “super scenes”, immensely long, beginning in one state and ending a metaphorical thousand miles away, with the earth of relationships, status and narrative scorched in between.

It starts with a triumphant Coriolanus, fresh from his extraordinary deeds at the battle of Corioles, on the verge of being crowned Consul of Rome, the president of this fledgling society. But, as so often in these great plays, the scene takes a sharp turn. Offstage, the Tribunes of the people, shop stewards of plebeian interests, have fomented an uprising against their new consul. Coriolanus launches into bitter invective against these two scheming upstarts, their new and disruptive power, whereupon the people of Rome storm the stage and an unholy riot breaks out. The Tribunes sentence him to death, Coriolanus wants to fight the lot of them right there and then:

No, I’ll die here!
There’s some among you have beheld me fighting:
Come, try upon yourselves what you have seen me.”

The riot is beaten back out of the Capitol, Coriolanus is finally persuaded to sheathe his sword and the play has tipped into open civil war between him and, well, everyone.

We’re really only supposed to be rehearsing sound cues but instead, despite the heat of the midday sun, we’re in full riot mode, desperately trying to crack the code of how to have 30 people onstage screaming while still allowing the dialogue to be heard and the protagonists to be seen, how to fight whilst keeping everyone safe and, most importantly, how to convey the genuine sense of it all kicking off while keeping it all simultaneously under control.

Another challenge is the extreme mutability of the mob in this play. One moment they adore Coriolanus, the next they’re baying for his blood. This can seem like lazy writing on Shakespeare’s part, until we realise it is just the opposite: it’s an acute understanding of crowd dynamics and the way collective feelings, positive or negative, can reverse direction in an instant, like a forest fire in a changing wind. With this play Shakespeare basically wrote the handbook for the dynamics of every Twitter pile-on we’ve ever seen.

I sit down on one of the burnt-out oil drums on the set. Bad idea. It’s well over a hundred degrees in Central Park and the dark metal has absorbed the entire heat of the sun. Mindful of the fact that Coriolanus, perhaps the hardest man in all classical drama, should suck it up, I stifle my desire to cry, wander under an awning and lower myself gingerly next to the cooling agent that is James Shapiro.

Shapiro is a genius and the perfect man to see when your arse is scorched and your patience frayed. He’s the Public Theater’s dramaturg, resident Shakespeare scholar, a professor at Columbia University, author of some of the most insightful books on the plays and their author. He has forgotten more about Coriolanus than any of us will ever know. “Did you know you’re one of only a few actors in history to play this part twice?” Really? Who are the others. “Charles Kemble.” Right. “Laurence Olivier.” Got it. I’m not sure whether my arse is soothed or now has more complicated issues.


16 July
Delacorte Theater, NYC

“Good evening. I’m Kate Burton and welcome to the Delacorte Theater.” It’s the first preview, the first public show. There are two thousand people out there. Kate, who plays my mother, Volumnia, does the introductory recorded message to the audience. I’m jogging from foot to foot and trying not to think about her dad. Richard was a pretty good Coriolanus. Only played it once, though; lightweight. Just as I’m trying to block out these thoughts, three little furry heads poke out from a gap in the side stage. Baby raccoons. They give me a coolly appraising look, not unlike what I’m expecting from the New York City punters, then shimmy out of the scenery and make off into Central Park.

So, now the gates are ope: now prove good seconds:
’Tis for the followers fortune widens them,
Not for the fliers: mark me and DO THE LIIIIIIKE!

The last three words are as bloodthirsty a rallying cry as I can muster and I turn and sprint through the open gates of Corioles, being careful to rapidly decelerate as I get to the vertiginous stairs that lead down the back of the Delacorte looking out over Central Park’s stately Belvedere Castle. Some small children and an elderly woman are feeding turtles in the pond and vigorously waving at me, delighted by the free peek backstage.

Looming over Aufidius (played by Mo Sesay) in the Globe’s 2006 production of Coriolanus

There’s no time to wave back as I have seconds to stand in a child’s paddling pool and have a bucket of fake blood poured over me before I’m back on to slaughter more character actors. I’m in the paddling pool, braced for the deluge of unctuously sweet, gooey gore to be poured. But there’s no deluge. Just some agitated whispering. What? Quick, pour the bloody blood! What? I’ve got to be back on in ten seconds and Shakespeare is very clear: “From face to foot he was a thing of blood.” “Jonny, five seconds until you’re back on,” whispers the stage manager. The whispering stops, the bucket is raised and… a small dribble of blood parts my hair. “Is that all? Where’s the rest?” I hiss as I scramble up the stairs. The paddling pool attendants look sad and point to a nearby crime scene: macabre little bloodstained paw prints leading into the bushes. “The raccoons ate it all.”


8 August
Delacorte Theatre, NYC

I’m feeling more than usually keyed up tonight because the real Volumnia, my mother, is here from England and in the house. As I make my way back to the dressing rooms, from out of the clearest of skies, a thunderclap and a sudden deluge of tropical summer rain. Thus begins a strange limbo state peculiar to this theatre, the state of not knowing if tonight you’ll be a tragic hero until midnight, or some guy wandering out of Central Park looking for pizza at about 9.15. But, perhaps inspired by the war-baby spirit of Margaret Cake, who at the age of 86 sits drenched through the entire night without an umbrella to shield her, we play on. And it’s a magical evening as the gentle cloud of rain, silver in the stage lights, makes the action into a kind of Japanese lithograph of Blade Runner. As I’m being hacked to pieces at the play’s climax by an angry mob of Volscians, the gods, like a passionate New York audience keen to show their feelings, perform a demented lightshow of an electrical storm over Manhattan.

10 August
Delacorte Theater, NYC

It’s our penultimate night. To mark the occasion we have a pre-show speech from the grandest of the many political fromages that have glommed onto this free civic ritual: Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader and daddy of the Democratic Party. I’m doing my antsy pre-show jog from foot to foot, hoping to hell that Chuck, a man I’ve admired for his no-bullshit attitude to Republican corruption and inequity, doesn’t overstay his welcome when I hear the dread words: “So this is a play about a tyrant.”

And I’m angry for a minute. Angry that he isn’t enquiring or interested enough to read past the Wikipedia entry for this play. Angry that he’s made my already tricky job – to defend and plead for this difficult, messy human being’s humanity – ten times harder by condemning him with this lazy description. Angry that he wants to reduce Shakespeare’s infinite complexity to fit a lazy soundbite. “So,” Chuck continues, “does that kind of leader sound familiar to anybody?” I fantasise about introducing him at his next rally with a glib and reductive characterisation: “Don’t forget folks, all politicians are lazy-minded, self-interested charlatans. Here he is, ladies and gentlemen – Chuck Schumer!”

Maybe the play has fallen into disuse in America because of its thorny political reputation, co-opted repeatedly throughout the 400 years of its history by Left and Right and still defying categorisation or an easy understanding of where Shakespeare’s sympathies lay. Arriving at the final tragedy he would write, Shakespeare had all but dispensed with glimpses into the soul through soliloquy or direct address to the audience. Hamlet, as the brilliant scholar Emma Smith tells us, is constantly saying: “Oh you have no idea what it’s like to be me!” And the audience keeps thinking: “Yes, yes we do! Because you keep telling us!” By the time Shakespeare gets to Coriolanus he is achieving an effect that has long since become Screenwriting 101: show, don’t tell. We view this man almost totally from the outside, not from within. Maybe that is why the play has acquired the reputation, like its war-damaged protagonist, of being cold, uncommunicative, locked down.

But that’s not what the audiences at the Delacorte seem to feel. Night after night, something seeps through the darkness and heat of the summer night, from stage to audience and back again: the joy of comprehension. Quite simply, they’re getting it. So whatever Chuck Schumer sets up in an audience’s mind, the play will do tonight what the play has been doing every night: connecting. Washing away the certainty of labels we start off with (“tyrant”, “hero”, “tragic”, “comic”) into something far more interesting and strange, both simultaneously hard to grasp and somehow familiar.

This is what Shakespeare can still do. I’m struck by the joy, the privilege, to be part of delivering an obscure but wonderfully urgent time capsule of human connection to this wild and beautiful corner of Central Park. Backstage, my sense of Schumer failure recedes and I’m in. And I feel like the audience is too.


11 August
Final performance, Delacorte Theater, NYC

It’s the intermission. I come back into the dressing room and sit on the floor. Despite the fact that I take the world’s fastest shower during the first half I can still feel the fake blood in my nostrils and ears. My clothes are drenched with sweat. Coriolanus has just been banished. He refuses to accept the city’s power over him (“I banish YOU!”) and has stalked off into “a world elsewhere”. As he goes, someone cries:

“The people’s enemy is gone, is gone!”

And like the crowd at Trump rallies crying “Lock her up!”, the mob begin to chant:

“It. Shall. Be. So! It. Shall. Be. So!

I look around the dressing room. Titus Lartius’s station is as neat as a new pin. Tullus Aufidius’s is the same, save for an industrial-sized tub of nuts to keep his warlord proteins high. Mine looks like Grey Gardens: earplugs, chilli flakes (to gargle with, old opera singer trick), alcohol rub and pads cut from a yoga mat for the pull-up bar near the theatre, a CBD stick for my dodgy shoulder, contact lenses, ginseng, a jar of instant espresso, numerous takeaway food boxes, critical essays, dead flowers.

I think I’ll never play a part this hard, or this wonderful, again. And I feel, once more, the mad disorientation of the theatre actor: repeating and repeating the impossible task, making your body and mind dependent on the adrenalised state of the impossible task. And then abandoning the impossible task, never to repeat it.

I haul myself off the floor for the final time and go out to face my exile.

This is an abridged version of a feature that appears in the forthcoming Tortoise Quarterly

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