February 28, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

Coriolanus (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

This is the final play in Shakespeare’s canon that I had never seen a production of (well, unless you count ‘Edward III’- and I’ve still only seen ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ on film), meaning that it’s the final chance I had to come to a production completely fresh, knowing little more than the basic outline of the plot and a few choice details. It’s also a landmark production for the RSC, being the last to be performed in the ancient Royal Shakespeare Theatre before it shuts down to be refurbished. It’s the last play, therefore, to be performed by the RSC on its own proscenium arch stage, and as such is in many ways the RSC audience’s ‘goodbye’ to a beloved theatre. More on that later.

I should say now that there are going to be a lot of major criticisms of this production, so want to put it on record that overall, I quite enjoyed it. The time flew by, the storytelling was clear and simple and the central performance, William Houston as Coriolanus, was superb, one of the best RSC performances of the year.

But unfortunately, I have a long list of criticisms that dominate my memory of last night’s performance. A good production lay within, but the scars across it were bigger than Coriolanus’ own. Firstly, the set. A wonderfully striking set greeted us in the auditorium, a maze of pillars stretching back seemingly infinitely into the distance, supporting an oppressive red wall that hung over the playing space. But, a la Peter Stein’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (see my earlier review), they insisted on having the wall move about ominously, turning into a ceiling, a backdrop, city gates or even disappearing altogether. Which could have been all fine, if it wasn’t for the fact the wall was designed in such a way that you could see (from the circle) stagehands opening and shutting the gates, shining their torches as they tried to lock it, hesitating to avoid trapping actors and even here the squealing of the winches pulling it up jerkily. They had clearly tried for an epic design, but it was rendered audibly laughable by shoddy design and manouvering, which distracted from what else was happening around the stage.

The second big complaint is Timothy West’s Menenius. Last year he starred in ‘Life Of Galileo’ at Birmingham Rep, and there confused audiences who couldn’t understand why he kept stumbling over his lines and forgetting words. Sadly, he did the same tonight (and apparently has been doing since the performance began). I don’t know if he hasn’t had time to learn them properly, if he struggles with language or if, in the politest possible sense, it might even be a matter of age. Whatever the reason, it seems stupid that he has such a major role when he can’t deliver the part- and even when he wasn’t forgetting his words or losing his place, he held himself stiffly as if trying to remember what came next rather than acting properly. Considering that his is a name the RSC has sold the production on, it’s pretty appalling.

The crowd scenes were stilted, awkward and clearly somewhat under-rehearsed, with moments when all the cast seemed to be completely unsure what to do. Luckily, there were some solid individual performances, and the lead citizens in particular were good.

Finally, the homoeroticism of the production. ‘Coriolanus’ is a play that definitely has potential to explore the relationship between Aufidius and Coriolanus, and many productions have apparently made their attraction very explicit. Doran’s handling, though, seemed to me somewhat immature. As the two warriors came together for their single combat and dealt each other crushing blows, a loud backing track of heavy breathing started playing, growing louder as the characters’ fight blended into it. Eventually the two, panting heavily, stood opposite each other (both topless), threw down their weapons and ran together to start grappling hand to hand, as the breathing track reached its climax. Doran lays it on with a trowel, to a point where several of the audience were laughing at the crudity of it. Visually it was a stunning scene, but short of placards reading “CONFLICT FUELLED BY REPRESSED SEXUAL ATTRACTION”, Doran’s intentions couldn’t have been made any more plain. It was a shame, as their kiss when Coriolanus defected and the final moments as everyone walked off, leaving Aufidius cradling Corilolanus’ body, were very effective, more so for their subtlety.

Janet Suzman (Volumnia) and William Houston (Coriolanus)

The ranting out of my system, the production’s strengths deserve some attention. William Houston, as already noted, elevated this production single-handedly, presenting an energetic, arrogant Coriolanus who kept the audience enraptured, despite his obvious flaws, simply through his power and presence. His relationship with Janet Suzman’s strong Volumnia was also wonderful, he regressing to spoiled teenager in her presence. She was excellent- a fairly traditional performance, but full of power, and their scenes together crackled. Aufidius too was excellent, and the tribunes (who had their own evil music, in another slightly crude stroke) were also good, inspiring a touch of sympathy for their struggle to assert their power as representatives of the people rather than being purely evil.

The servingmen were three extremely camp Northerners (Why?! Can someone explain to me WHY, in the world of the RSC, there are always comic gay Northerners, normally from West Yorkshire? Could we PLEASE vary the regional accents a bit, maybe even have an heroic Northerner, just once?!) who inspired a great deal of laughter for their gossipping mannerisms, and the fights were well choreographed, pacey and satisfyingly violent.

I wanted to like this production, I really did. Overall, it was enjoyable and certainly a memorable telling of the play. Its flaws, though, ruined it for me, and sadly I don’t think the company will have the opportunity to iron these out before the end of the run. It’s a real shame, as there is a great production buried in there, and I don’t think we’ll have a chance to see it.

Posted in Theatre review