A fitting farewell to the auditorium and stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre prior to its closure and refurbishment. The revolution in Shakespearean staging that this renovation of a vast 1930s chasm hopefully heralds is echoed in Gregory Doran's simple and straightforward production of Coriolanus. As if to glimpse at the redesigned acting space to come, Doran has forced the drama onto the very forestage, adding several sweeping platforms that occupy the front rows of the stalls. The main stage itself only very occasionally opens to its full depth when representing the vastness of a Roman battlefield. Most of the evening, actors enter and exit through architectural avenues constructed of blood-smeared stone. These corridors of power occupy the space, constricting movement in the stifled world of a Rome ruled by Senators from the elite of society and manipulated by Tribunes from the common Plebeian rabble. Political intrigue and back-stabbing provide the key to this dark and sinister tale of military heroism, vanity and revenge.
William Houston, following the success of his excellent Sejanus in the Swan Theatre, again dons his Roman garb to bring life and vigour to the Roman hero, Caius Martius Coriolanus. Houston's animal stage presence is perfect for this bloodthirsty soldier. His face, an elastic minefield of expression and pathos; his body, lithe and muscular and very, very menacing in its tension; his voice, a rasping instrument of poetic beauty: all this combines to create a rising star of the classical stage. Houston soars triumphantly in this role which seems custom-written for his particular talents.
Houston's performance is matched by that of Janet Suzman, as Volumnia, mother to the ill-fated Coriolanus. Suzman plays Volumnia like a towering matriarch, the only person, let alone woman, who can reduce her warrior son into a babbling schoolboy forced to present himself for the approval of the garlic-breathing masses. It is when Suzman as Volumnia pleads with her son to spare the Roman citizens that the strength of her character really shines forth. On her return to Rome, Volumnia is greeted with all the pomp and ceremony of a returning victor. A moment of theatrical genius as Volumnia, exhausted from her emotional ordeal at the hands of her own son, stands motionless in front of the adoring Romans; as if ready to act the victorious orator, Suzman strikes the pose, only to shrug, turn, and exit in resigned sorrow and loss.
Richard Hudson evokes a traditional classico-Jacobean world, complete with doublet and toga. The setting hints at the death of the proscenium stage for modern Shakespeare. Tim Mitchell adds his subtle lighting effects to the cluttered world of Roman architecture. In its entirety, Doran's production is both conservative and innovative. A fitting tribute to this outdated building and one which announces the future for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a future dominated by thrust stages and drama which exploits the immediacy and accessibility of performance and the involvement of the audience.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007