Why This Shakespearean Political Thriller Is More Relevant Than Ever

The performances are excellent, the direction singular and the Shakespearean text dazzling. This new production of ‘Coriolanus’ should be staged nationwide.

Gila Almagor as Volumnia in 'Coriolanus.' Her relations with her son are physical, almost violent.
Gerard Allon

“Political thriller” is the subtitle given to Habima Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” by director-adapter Irad Rubinstein and translator Dori Parnas. So topical is it in early-21st century Israel that one wonders why it isn’t being staged in every corner of the land.

Shakespeare would probably accept this subtitle for his play. It concerns a towering military figure on whom the country depends, but who is extraordinarily arrogant and refuses to play the political game, at which he is a novice. The Bard had a thing for great warriors who fail when not on the battlefield (Othello, Macbeth, Richard III, even the protagonists of “Much Ado”). But no less important for our purposes is the other protagonist of this thriller: the oppressed, exploited, impoverished and angry common folk, who are toyed with by the political wheelers and dealers – the old and new elites – for their pleasure and gain. Shakespeare sees, and shows vividly, the terrible faults of both sides as they wear each other down.

One of the heroes of this superb production is the Shakespearean text as rendered in Hebrew by the translation wizard Dori Parnas, who loses not an iota of the complexity and formal aspects of the original (meter, language); it remains lucid, relevant and contemporary. More importantly, in a play with a tangled plot and multiple stage events, it’s the words and phrases that act on the spectator’s imagination. Language and speech coaches Asi Eshed and Dan Inbar merit high praise for the excellent handling of the text by the entire cast.

This is saliently a director’s play, another triumph for Irad Rubinstein, who has been consolidating his status in the theater for the past two or three years. He has a distinctive stage signature, whose great virtue, apart from intelligent interpretation, approach to text – classical or modern – and inventive ability, lies in a form of physicality that resides on the brink of violence. In his plays, people touch one another a lot, and not gently. He is also adept at creating sweeping mass scenes with few actors (thanks also to the creativeness of the costume designer, Svetlana Berger, and the cast’s quick-change capabilities). Rubinstein’s plays do not create an illusion of reality; they are all almost stylized theater, and they are fraught with energy. His inventions are legion (sometimes overly so: in this play the use of Smartphones is terrific, but the “anonymous” masks are a bit too much and not really germane; a shared bath for Coriolanus and Aufidius is fine, but using toy soldiers is overdoing it a little).

Universal and local

Rubinstein moves the plot along well (I won’t tire you with it – do some homework), exposing the emptiness of the leaders and the nullity of their people in a manner simultaneously universal and local. Coriolanus’ yellow-and-black symbol (did someone say Kahane but didn’t get it?) is seen even in the carpets on the stage. The bandage on Coriolanus’ head echoes Ariel Sharon and the hairdo of one of the tribunes (the excellent Miki Peleg Rothstein) recalls that of former MK Ora Namir.

The entire cast is admirable. Rotem Keinan as the Second Tribune is so businesslike it’s scary; Shahar Raz and especially Ben Yosipovitch switch roles with dazzling and amusing speed; Alex Karol is a violent, alien Aufidius, and it’s easy to understand the mutual attraction and esteem between him and Coriolanus. Roi Miller is a vigorous general; Uri Hochman obviously enjoys his role as the self-satisfied, scene-stealing senator; and Oshrat Ingedashet is Coriolanus’ beautiful, hurting wife. Child actor Noam Frank does well in coping with the character of his father, who is played by his real-life father – the moment in which he violently removes his “traitor” father’s hand from his shoulder is a dramatic gem.

And this is also a great production for Gil and Gila: Gil Frank as the egotistical, traitorous and vanquished Coriolanus; and Gila Almagor-Agmon as Volumnia, the great castrating mother, who brandishes flags and whose values are the opposite of those of Almagor the person. Her Volumnia is withering in her greedy, twisted refusal to compromise, and her relations with her son are physical, almost violent.

It’s impossible to like the character of Coriolanus, but it’s impossible not to admire his portrayal by Gil Frank. He possesses a threatening physicality, but what delighted me was the use he makes of his singular voice. Frightening in the depth of its intensity, his voice at times seems to be welling up from some inferno located beneath his heart. He takes the spectator on the self-destructive journey of a leader who allows certain of his personality traits – daring, steadfastness, courage – to grow to monstrous proportions, which destroy him and everything around him, just as Israeli society is largely doing to itself.

In short, I think Habima’s production of “Coriolanus” is riveting and first-rate.

The next performances of “Coriolanus” at Habima Theater in Tel Aviv: May 15, 29, 30; June 5, 6, 16, 18.