Coriolanus – March 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Greg Doran

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 28th March 2007

This is the last production, and performance, we’ll be seeing in this version of the main house – ever! I felt quite sad at the end, although given that the seat I was in tonight wasn’t at the best angle for my back, I’m sure I’ll appreciate the improvements when they come. Still, we’ve had many a happy hour in this theatre, and I’m looking forward to a backstage tour on Friday.

Coriolanus is a fascinating play. It’s not done very often, though Steve says he’s always surprised by this – each production we’ve seen has shown it’s a very interesting piece. There’s so much to it that I’d be up all night if I tried to report everything I saw tonight, so here’s the gist.

First off, I recognised so much in this production that echoed other Roman and Greek productions in this Complete Works Festival. I don’t know if this was deliberate, or just the natural effect of seeing so many Shakespeare plays together – all the common threads are highlighted. The Titus Andronicus was represented by the steps leading up to the stage, the Julius Caesar by the opening scene of plebeians causing a rumpus, the Troilus and Cressida by the angled wall, and the Antony and Cleopatra by smeared paint across the columns and the wall. Quite an achievement (or quite a coincidence, depending).

The set featured the steps at the front, a wall which could move down towards the front and which had a window high up on the right giving a view of the Volscian flag, and large doors on the left and right. It also angled to form a sloping roof. There was a series of square arches going off into the distance – these were raised and lowered as required, and formed the opening set. For some scenes, all these items disappeared, and we had a bare stage – very effective during Volumnia’s pleading scene.

The costumes used red for Romans and grey for Volscians. It’s a common technique, and does at least distinguish the two sides effectively, but like any colour coding, it can look a bit naff when it’s overdone. The style was a kind of Elizabethan version of Roman, with pleated skirts for the Roman soldiers, and bog standard olde worlde rough clothes for the workers. The pleated skirts had an extra frill at the top, which frankly looked absurd, especially on the Tribunes. However, the women had decent costumes, and the performances largely rose above such mundane matters.

The performance I liked best was Janet Suzman as Volumnia. She portrayed all her authority and total commitment to Roman patrician values (state before family) without making her a blinkered battleaxe. This Volumnia obviously knew exactly what price her son would have to pay in letting Rome off the hook, and her dignified grief on her return to Rome was very moving. At the same time, her enthusiasm for sending her son off to war at an early age so that he could earn honour is still appalling – if fewer women took that attitude today the world might be a bit safer.

Timothy West as Menenius was as good as I’ve seen in the part. I followed all his long-winded speeches this time, and although I think there’s more humour to be got out of his mistaken beliefs in the second half (that Coriolanus will listen to him, then that he won’t listen to the women), I really got the sense of Menenius’ laid-back authority with the people.

Coriolanus was played by William Houston, whom we’ve seen before as Sejanus, and as Roman General in Believe What you Will. Is this a trend? I find his physical behaviours tend to be repetitive, even mannered. He has a stance which he adopts at every opportunity, wide-legged, elbows bent, and hands clasped, and while he may deliver the lines well enough, I find this monotonous position rather distracting. (It wasn’t helped tonight by the pleated skirt.) However, this was a good performance, and showed more versatility than I’d seen before, so there’s hope yet. I was particularly impressed with his appearance at Aufidius’ feast, and his delayed emotional response to Volumnia’s pleading. What also came across very clearly is that Coriolanus is haughty, but not vain; he doesn’t seek glory or riches for himself, it’s all done for the good of Rome. However, he’s a warrior through and through, and doesn’t see why the common folk who don’t fight for Rome should have a say in how the city is run, and that includes voicing their approval of him as consul. His outspokenness gets him into trouble time and again, and while I can respect and admire his skills as a warrior, they cannot compensate for his lack of social and political skills.

Aufidius is another important part, and this time I found the performance somewhat crude. This actor has a tendency to wide-eyed declamation, possibly with some nostril-flares creeping in as well. This, coupled with some stiffness in movement made the part less interesting for me this time, although the dialogue all came across pretty well, and his changing motivations were clearly, if a little crudely, expressed.

The Tribunes were also a bit weak, I felt. It may be a bit unfair to compare them to the excellent performances we saw with the touring production a few years back (Tom Mannion and Geoffrey Freshwater), but I couldn’t help noticing the lack of detail in these roles this time. Other supporting actors were very good. I liked the servants at Aufidius’ feast, and the plebeians worked very well in this production – it was a good strong start to the play.

Other points I noticed: the turning point in Menenius’ persuasion of the plebeians at the start seems to be his opportunity to ridicule the chief troublemaker by likening him to a big toe. Once that chap’s lost his authority, Menenius has no opposition to his point of view. This fits very well with my understanding of Roman society, where rhetoric was more important than facts, even in court cases. The turning point for Coriolanus, listening to Volumnia, is her threat that he will be remembered shamefully, not as a hero. The fickleness of the people is a theme shared with Julius Caesar, and jealousy and envy have plenty of work to do, along with pride. The constant dilemma is this – the mass of people want leaders, but don’t want to be held to a discipline. Bugger. So heroes come and heroes go, each one discarded when they threaten the masses’ comfort zone, or are no longer required, or when the war crimes tribunal is sitting. I have no idea how this will ever be resolved, so Coriolanus should be doing good business for many centuries to come.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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