By William Shakespeare
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
William Houston as Coriolanus and Trevor White as Tullus Aufidius. (Photo: Stewart Hemley)
The Royal Shakespeare Company, one of the best theater companies in the world, has mounted an extraordinary production of an extremely lame Shakespeare play. There is no way to put it but bluntly; watching RSC put on Coriolanus is like watching Picasso paint some guy’s house.
Here’s the story RSC brought to life:
In the early days of the Roman Republic, the City was threatened by the Volsci, who lived to the southeast. Caius Martius (William Houston), a fearsome warrior but an arrogant and unpleasant fellow, led the Romans to victory and earned the surname “Coriolanus” for conquering the town of Corioli. In keeping with the tradition of their (and our) time, Roman leaders proposed Coriolanus for the position of consul. The public, aware of his contempt for them and incensed over a scandal involving usury, rejected him and exiled him from Rome. The embittered Coriolanus then joined forces with his former Volscian enemies, overran Roman outposts and gathered at the gates of Rome itself. There, his mother Volumnia (Janet Suzman) met with him to dissuade the turncoat leader from destroying the nation of his birth. What happened next? Well, do we say, “the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was the Volsci”?
From these unpromising events, William Shakespeare fashioned The Tragedy of Coriolanus, four years before his death. Coriolanus stayed largely true to history (as set forth in Plutarch), although it did substitute food riots for the usury dispute. (Shakespeare’s father had been convicted of usury, and the subject may have been sensitive to the Bard.) In so doing, Shakespeare managed to create a play virtually devoid of any sympathetic characters whatsoever. Coriolanus bears a nearly psychotic ill-will toward, and contempt for, the common people he seeks to lead, and is in addition is a bit of a mama’s boy. Volumnia is shrewish, manipulative and bloodthirsty. Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia (Eleanor Matsuura) is a whiner; the principal Volscian general (Trevor White) is a double-dealer and the people of Rome themselves (Jonty Stephens, Frances Jeater, Steve Varnom, Ricky Champ, Riann Steele, Robert Orme, Curtis Flowers and Ben Lee – all of them superb) are cowardly and inconstant, easily manipulated by the sleazy tribunes (Fred Ridgeway and Darren Tunstall).
Make no mistake: Caius Martius Coriolanus is not an heroic fighting man with too much integrity to pander to the general public. He is an insufferable elitist, whose hatred of laborers, fishmongers, and others in the non-patrician classes is deep and abiding. The very first words he says are addressed to a mob of starving plebeians: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?” In the next three minutes, Coriolanus calls the common people – the men and women he would later seek to lead – “curs”, “hares”, “geese”, and “vile”. Almost in prophecy, he observes, “Who deserves greatness, deserves your hate; and your affections are a sick man’s appetite”. When he finds out the cause of their upset – that they are starving, and need food, he cries out “Hang ‘em” and reveals his thirst for blood: “let me use my sword, I’ll make a quarry with thousands of these quarter’d slaves, as high as I could pick my lance.”
I was interested to see what RSC and its director Gregory Doran would do with all this. To their credit, they attacked the play full bore, making no effort to prettify or explain Caius Martius, or to make the common people look heroic. (Shakespeare, like Coriolanus, had a dim view of the lower classes. His treatment of them here is almost identical to what it was in Julius Caesar, where they shifted allegiances with every gust of high-blown rhetoric).
Houston plays Coriolanus as a man in pain, raw-voiced, with a sick smile planted firmly on his face. He is never anything close to happy except when he is killing people. War appears to put him in a state of grace. He visibly relaxes his body; a note of joy enters his voice; and his smile seems natural. But in peacetime, the bad feelings return. He is uncomfortable even in a visit with his family, and his pain reaches its apex when, having been nominated for consul, he is obliged to stand out in the marketplace and talk to the people whose assent is required. Here Houston seems like a man compelled to sing at his own execution. It is painful to watch, and at the same time, very, very funny.
Coriolanus is a prodigious warrior rather than a great general (his manner with his soldiers is little different than it is with the public), and RSC uses every opportunity to emphasize this aspect of him. Coriolanus enters a Volscian fort alone, to the great disadvantage of the Volscians; after a battle we see only in shadows against a wall, the Volscian flag goes down and the Roman flag comes up. Coriolanus’ hand-to-hand combat with the Volscian general Aufidius (White) is some of the best fight choreography I have ever seen in my life. Audifius goes after Coriolanus with a heavy axe, which Coriolanus parries with his shield; the two of them move together like some great industrial engine, manufacturing war as a product. Terry King is responsible for choreographing this excellent work.
Aside from Coriolanus’ triumph over the Volsci, the key moments in this play are his failed bid for the consulship, his decision to join forces with the Volscians, and Volumnia’s successful argument for peace with the destruction of Rome at hand. RSC attacks these scenes with great integrity and superb craftsmanship. Michael Hadley as the incumbent consul and Timothy West as Coriolanus’ handler are as charming and persuasive as a dozen Barak Obamas, but they are no match for Ridgeway and Tunstall, who operate amidst the plebeians while the patricians’ backs are turned. Once exiled, and full of ego and wounded spleen, Coriolanus returns to the home of his old enemy Aufidius to propose the joining of forces. After a wonderfully comic scene with Aufidius’ servants (Varnon, Orme and Stephens), Coriolanus and the Volsci General are reunited, brothers-in-death, in a scene of surprising tenderness. Finally, Suzman as Volumnia – crisp and dry as a case of Dom Perignon throughout the play – unloads a monologue’s worth of fire on the turncoat general at the climax, using his wife and child as living props and stroking every vestige of feeling he ever had for his erstwhile home. Volumnia is so moving that even Aufidius is touched, and Suzman is so moving that the audience is touched as well. Volumnia, along with the rest of Coriolanus’ family returns to Rome to great cheer and acclaim, but there is no joy in her face. She knows the fate that awaits her son, and indeed he gets it in the next scene.
The play is, for Shakespeare, unusually loaded down with arcane slang. RSC does not ignore it, but does not emphasize it either, and with the clarity of vision which the production presents, it is not important. The slang passes as a sort of musical background, or like the sound of a burbling brook.
Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s red play, bathed in pain and illuminated by the baleful god of war. Richard Hudson’s brilliant set lays it out plain for us: a rust-scarred maze of columns and arches for Rome, and a huge wall for Corioli. Carrie Bayliss’ costumes make the same recognition: Romans are dressed in various titian hues, with the reddest reserved for soldiers, whereas the Volsci are dressed in grey, anticipating their fade from history. Paul Englishby’s music, sudden, stirring and martial, is performed by live musicians.