From the Rank and File, A Festival Leader Rises

Aufidius (Trevor White), left, duels with archenemy Coriolanus (William Houston) on the Kennedy Center stage.
Aufidius (Trevor White), left, duels with archenemy Coriolanus (William Houston) on the Kennedy Center stage. (By Stewart Hemley)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

You've about had your fill of "thees," "thous" and "thines." It's something like Day 4,278 of the Shakespeare in Washington festival, and the last thing you want to hear is that there's another play in town by you-know-who that requires your attendance.

Hey! There's another play in town by you-know-who -- and this one's a keeper.

The "Coriolanus" at the Kennedy Center turns out to be the most electric night of Shakespeare the festival has presented. The surprise is not that it's brought to you by the Royal Shakespeare Company, but that the production is the best thing the RSC has imported to Washington in its five-year Kennedy Center residency.

Anchored by the sterling contributions of Janet Suzman, Timothy West and, in the title role, the magnum-force William Houston, this "Coriolanus" races through three hours in the Eisenhower Theater with the intensity and ferocity of a latter-day political thriller. Director Gregory Doran -- whose incisive pairing of "The Taming of the Shrew" and "The Tamer Tamed" visited the Eisenhower in 2003 -- confirms in the gritty machismo of "Coriolanus" a powerful rendering of what it is to be a citizen, a soldier, a leader and, ultimately, a human being.

"Coriolanus" is the chronicle of a young Roman groomed as a soldier who is persuaded to try on the ill-fitting robes of a politician. The play charts his unlikely progression from military star to exiled traitor and finally -- confronted with a choice between self-love and love of family -- to martyrdom.

Perhaps the outsize impact of this production, designed by Richard Hudson as a classical empire soaked in violence, has partly to do with lowered expectations. "Coriolanus" is usually not ranked among Shakespeare's premier tragedies. It tends to languish in the shadow of his more popular Roman plays, such as "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Julius Caesar."

Doran, however, makes a persuasive case here for pushing "Coriolanus" into the limelight. With its interlacing of elements familiar to our age -- a conniving league of politicians, a fickle vox populi, a soldier ill at ease in a crowd of commoners and a cadre of supporters eager to remake his image -- the play is astonishingly audience-friendly. It boasts, too, a nifty proto-Freudian relationship between Coriolanus and his overbearing mother, who is so invested in her son's battlefield success that she keeps a running tally of his wounds.

Shades of "The Manchurian Candidate"! In the naturalness with which she imbues her filial adoration, Suzman proves to be a consummate Volumnia, the very model of maternal overindulgence and patrician entitlement. There is an uncannily modern cast to the psychological control Volumnia wields over her arrogant brute of a son, a bond that proves comedic and fatal. In the final movement of "Coriolanus," it's Volumnia's overarching influence -- the self-same force that molded him into a war machine -- that melts Coriolanus's heart and ensures his downfall.

Suzman's inclinations here are never for broadness. Her prideful Volumnia is a subtle politician, both aware of her son's affinity for chaos and practical about how to guide him to civility. The actress is keenly attuned, too, to the extraordinary effect that the mother has on the son -- especially in their last scene, at the Volscian camp outside Rome, where she must plead for Coriolanus's mercy. In a work filled with references to scars and injuries, it is the wounded looks this Volumnia trains on her boy that carry the most emotional weight.

The play occurs in a Rome on the brink of civil unrest (Hudson's multiarched set is a ruins waiting to happen), in which the poor are lined up bitterly against the ruling class. Believing it has found the man to mollify the people, the Senate, led by West's wise old Menenius, nominates war hero Coriolanus as consul. Despite his superhuman domination -- in muscular, "Rambo"-worthy battle scenes -- of Rome's enemy the Volscians, Coriolanus is rejected contemptuously by the public.

And Coriolanus returns the favor. As a soldier-statesman, he's no Henry V. His capability is for bringing men to their knees solely by force. The idea of seeking the favor of a rabble he considers his inferior repulses him. In a scene prefiguring the Iowa caucuses by a few millennia, Coriolanus has to campaign in a market for the support of the common folk. Houston's hilarious discomfiture, his grimaces of total disgust, suggests he would rather be out somewhere disemboweling something.

We never get much of a portrait of his interior life the way we do with, say, Macbeth. But it's a bravura role nevertheless, and Houston proves to be a remarkable standard-bearer.

This rugged actor has the growl of Ian McKellen and the bearing of Daniel Craig. There's no doubt of his appetite for domination. When he has the life of his archenemy Aufidius (the excellent Trevor White) literally in his hands, Houston's Coriolanus breaks out in a smile so serene, you'd think he was on a massage table at Canyon Ranch. (Later on, Coriolanus and Aufidius will seal an alliance in a moment of unexpected tenderness.)

At other times, Houston spits out his lines, as if language were just another weapon. And he registers pique in guttural gasps that put you in mind of beast more than soldier. These traits become all the more engrossing as we discover how much of a mama's boy Coriolanus truly is.

Hudson's stark designs consist, like the play, of brutal surfaces: The walls of the besieged cities are blank and extend the height of the Eisenhower stage. All of Rome wears red, the color that is also splashed on the archways. In such places, the blood never washes away. To punctuate scenes, Doran effectively uses fanfares and bursts of light; every transition is intended to put you on edge.

The sterling performances include West's Menenius, who, like an anxious political handler, winces every time Coriolanus commits another oratorical offense. Fred Ridgeway and Darren Tunstall are skillful pot-stirrers, portraying tribunes who fear that Coriolanus has nothing but tyranny in mind. And Michael Hadley provides a mellifluous account of Cominius, a key Coriolanus booster.

The play's abrupt, bloody finale might strike you as a sorry end. It certainly is for the hero. And yet, the RSC's powerhouse "Coriolanus" leaves you refreshed and reinvigorated by the art of possibility.

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Gregory Doran. Sets and costumes, Richard Hudson; lighting, Tim Mitchell and Caroline Burrell; music, Paul Englishby; sound, Martin Slavin; fight director, Terry King. With Eleanor Matsuura, Darlene Johnson. About 3 hours. Through May 6 at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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