Theatre review: Coriolanus / Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Ghosts inevitably haunt this production of Coriolanus which is the last to be seen in Elizabeth Scott's existing, 75-year-old building. But, while it is difficult for some of us to banish memories of Olivier and Alan Howard in the title role, Gregory Doran provides a good, honest account of the play that treats it as Shakespeare's climactic tragedy.

William Houston's Coriolanus is very much the flawed warrior-hero: the Roman fighting machine, and lonely dragon, incapable of the bland compromises of peace. Houston, as he showed in Sejanus, has a fiery presence and resonant voice; and, seeing the light come into his eyes at the noise of battle, you feel he is aptly described as "a thing of blood." But Houston, contemptuously sniffing the sweat of the plebs as he seeks their voices for consul or cuffing the aediles about the ears when dubbed a "traitor", also captures Coriolanus' unchecked animal arrogance.

It is a fine performance in a familiar classical mould. But, paradoxically in a play of such muscular rhetoric, its best effect is achieved through silence. After Volumnia has prevailed on the banished hero to halt his attack on Rome, Houston grasps her hand and surveys her with a rush of contradictory emotions. And it is reinforced by Janet Suzman's Volumnia who, on her tearfully silent return to Rome, knows that she has effectively signed her son's death warrant.

Doran's message is clear: this is the tragedy of an exceptional solitary who has no place in society. But this reading undercuts the play's political complexity by downsizing the tribunes. Fred Ridgeway's Sicinius Velutus is an unkempt demagogue and Darren Tunstall's Junius Brutus a grubby opportunist given to bribing officials. The effect is to undercut what Coleridge called Shakespeare's "philosophic impartiality" and to diminish the legitimate grievances of the starving people.

But the production notches up a number of good points. There is no escaping the way Trevor White's Aufidius and Houston's hero are engaged in homoerotic combat. Suzman humanises Volumnia rather than turning her into an implacable Roman matron. And Timothy West plays Menenius as a singularly testy patrician. Richard Hudson's design also captures something of the grandeur of Rome. I've seen more intellectually innovative productions but this closes a chapter of Stratford history with dignity and style.

#&149; Until March 31. Box office: 0844 800 111.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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