Roman Meal

Despite the giant ham in the title role, the Royal Shakespeare Company manages a rousing 'Coriolanus'

Knobbly English knees, homoerotic grappling and an awful lot of heavy breathing filled the Eisenhower Theater’s stage for opening night of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Coriolanus. This is a high-spirited production with a lot to watch and enjoy, including two particularly stellar performances, but it is not an entirely premier effort from the RSC.

Let’s start with the biggest stumbling block: William Houston in the title role. Brilliant of diction, obsessively personally choreographed, savoring the very cloth of his costumes, Houston clearly lives, eats, breathes and certainly defecates the Bard, but it is all too much. This is a Coriolanus on methamphetamine. Houston does not act, he ACTS; he does not breathe, he BREATHES; he does not speak, he ISSUES from a bullhorn installed in his larynx. This guy is so intense, chewing the scenery might actually help.



Fight night: Houston (center)
(Photo by Stewart Hemley)

As entertaining as all this is (très Blackadder), Houston’s self-consciousness does disservice to the play. His larger-than-life mastery is ultimately just distracting, plain and simple. Certainly Coriolanus is a card: peerless warrior, practically God-like on the battlefield, an arrogant man-child with a prodigious God/mother-complex. He must be played with charisma and a dark inner light. But Houston, though sometimes mesmerizing, falls far too often into caricature. This production is hardly sacrosanct (note the balloons that appear in act two and the villagers played as gossiping ”queens”), but Houston’s excesses go beyond self-parody. The guy just drips with gooey self-conceit.

Luckily, there is good news. Quietly, skillfully and with tremendous subtlety (certainly by comparison), Timothy West, in the role of Menenius, delivers a very fine performance. This is challenging, as Menenius moves from the periphery to the center of the drama and back again frequently. Yet West maintains the continuity of Menenius’ presence wonderfully. Every time he emerges from the crowd or strolls to center stage, we are rewarded with his stunning command of Shakespeare’s intent. From his measured but deeply emotive delivery of the language to the very tilt of his head, West guides us through this tale of arrogance gone awry, providing essential touchstones of pathos.

And sometimes we need the guidance. The machinations of the Roman Senate become somewhat convoluted as members confront Coriolanus’ big-footed attempts to have himself made consul after he reigns victorious over neighboring Tullus Aufidius and his tribe. Two Tribunes (representatives of the people allowed a presence in the Senate), worried that Coriolanus will turn Rome into a dictatorship, start rousing the rabble. This leads to quite a bit of inflamed Tribunal speechmaking, some parts more accessible than others.

The other wonderful performance comes from Janet Suzman as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. Suzman is old-school and a true pleasure to watch. Though more stylized a performer than West, she is equally capable of drawing us in with lightning speed. She embodies this intelligent and manipulative woman so brilliantly, she makes Volumnia utterly relevant to the here and now. Shakespeare wrote on human character with a genius of insight and beauty, but actors like West and Suzman bring it to us with timeless dimension.

Coriolanus
starstarstarstar
To May 6
Royal Shakespeare Company
Kennedy Center
Eisenhower Theater
$25-$78
202-467-4600
www.kennedy-center.org

Trevor White as Coriolanus’ arch-enemy and then ally/lover Tullus Aufidius, also deserves mention. Director Gregory Doran uses Aufidius to inject a pretty powerful re-interpretation here by having Aufidius eventually reveal not just his admiration of Coriolanus on the battlefield, as written, but also his erotic fixation, as shown. The prospect appears in the warrior’s first encounter in combat and is later sealed with a kiss when Coriolanus seeks out Aufidius’ help in waging revenge against Rome. Aufidius’ monologue when Coriolanus appears in his stronghold, with this new interpretation, ends up rivaling the strongest gay porno script you’re likely to stumble across. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so engaging as delivered by White. He plays Aufidius straight, so to speak, and in doing so, gives the man a compelling and convincing intensity.

And along with these excellent performances there is all manner of fun and clever stagecraft from players thundering down the aisles to the nicely evoked battle scenes that make interesting use of audio. It is always worth seeing the RSC, but especially so without the airfare.

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