Colleen Wheeler & Moya O’Connell | Photo: Tim Matheson

“I think she’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.”

Bard on the Beach is staging its first production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (August 21 – September 21) with Moya O’Connell playing the titular warrior with the kinetic cool of a kickboxer. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson, who is celebrating his twenty-eighth season with Bard, this production is riveting, violent, and utterly compelling. 

The action takes place in “a conflicted world…one where time and place borrow from the past, while also projecting toward an imagined not-too-distant future,” Gibson writes in the program notes, adding: “The internet and electronic communications we know today are not at play in the world”. Jove be praised, spare me the tweets of those who would rule. The set design by Pam Johnson is gorgeous: rusted metal, barbed wire, and decapitated marble statues—these warlords and politicians are squabbling amid the ruins. Sound Designer Alessandro Juliani describes this harsh aesthetic as “beautiful discordancy”.

Coriolanus has always been one of Shakespeare’s more obscure and least performed tragedies, in part because the hero, Caius Martius (bestowed the title of “Coriolanus” after a successful conquest) is so prideful, imperious, and openly disdainful. On their first appearance, the war hero insults the common people, the Roman plebeians, as “dissentious rogues” and “curs”.  This sets up the play’s class conflict from the start: a timely theme, the plebeians might just as easily be called the 99%. Martius is an elite member of “the honoured number”, the patricians of Rome or, if you like, the 1%. Martius relishes battle and fights valiantly for Rome without concern for personal safety, but doesn’t much care if its poorest citizens starve.

Martius with their “noble carelessness” has almost as little regard for the audience. Unlike the nervous, chatty Hamlet, Martius is tightlipped. We get no soliloquies. Martius prefer their actions speak for themselves—a solider who would “stand as if a woman were author of herself, and knew no other kin.” Coriolanus is, in many ways, a play about the mind and soul of its titular hero. What makes it so interesting as that it fails to give us any clear answers and Martius—stoic, shell-shocked, prideful—isn’t talking.

From Batman to Bond, physically and psychologically damaged warriors fascinate us. In this production of Shakespeare’s play, however, the warrior is a woman. This brings new dimensions to a character that is otherwise in danger of being reduced to toxic-masculinity clad in leather. Moya O’Connell plays the part with vitality, a soldier’s sharp edge, and haughty disdain for your opinion. Fighting the Volscians single-handedly, she becomes that “thing of blood, whose every motion was timed with dying cries”.  

Maybe we’re all a bit tired of swaggering machismo, but I found a female Coriolanus to be refreshing and exhilarating. I also wonder if it makes the character even more impressive and a little more sympathetic. We can’t help but imagine that Martius had to break the glass ceiling and gender stereotypes before she could storm Corioles. In this imagined world, however, women are the warriors and the generals. The Bard’s production also gender-swaps Martius’ nemesis Aufidius, played by Marci T. House as a powerful warlord. Sparks fly between the two rivals and not just when they clash with steel. For their part, men hold the roles of politicians, including the silver-tongued patrician, Menenius, (Shawn Macdonald) and the invertebrate tribunes, representatives of the peoples’ voice, Brutus (Praneet Akilla) and Sicinius (Craig Erickson). 

This gender swap also has an interesting affect on Martius’ relationship with their mother Volumnia (Colleen Wheeler). In traditional productions, the immense pressure Volumnia places on Martius to become an elite warrior can be seen as her means of achieving power in a patriarchal society that denies women independence and a voice in politics. In the Bard’s production, this explanation doesn’t work. Instead, Volumnia seems like the type of parent who, in a more suburban world, would have their child practice violin until their fingers bled. It’s clear that she sees herself as the author of her daughter’s achievements: “Thou art my warrior,” Volumnia says to an exiled Martius, “I holp to frame thee.” The dynamic between Wheeler and O’Connell is fascinating, even more so when they are joined by Martius’ sensitive husband Virgilio, played by Anthony Santiago.

The world of the Bard’s production is rusted-out and war-weary, but there are still politicians fighting over who should rule over the ruins. For the elite class in Rome, the answer is clear—the best of the best should rule and represent the interests of the elite. As the General Cominius (Dalal Badr) says in conferring the title of “Coriolanus” on Martius, “It is held that valor is the chiefest virtue and most dignifies the haver; if it be, the woman I speak of cannot in the world be singly counterpoised.” 

No one but Martius could have single-handedly broken the Volscians. Rome has raised “valor”—physical bravery and martial excellence—to its highest virtue. Martius is the best of this broken world and should, therefore, assume the title of “Consul” and rule.

Yet the Roman public ultimately rejects Martius as Consul, throwing the war hero into exile. “He that is incapable of living in a society,” says Aristotle in Book 1 of the Politics, “is either a god or a beast.” Martius is compared to both throughout the play.

Ultimately, we want our leaders to be of the people. Like the plebeians, we want our leaders to show us their wounds, to be fallible, to exist for us and at our mercy. Politicians may be mostly wolves in our contemporary world and in whatever world exists on the other side of calamity. At the very least, we can force them to put on sheep’s clothing.