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Coriolanus

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
(2007)

William Houston as Coriolanus

It's very tempting, when considering a production of Coriolanus, to launch into a discussion about the politics of the play: is Shakespeare on the side of the patricians or the plebeians? Is he right or left wing? And so on. There have been productions which show him as one and productions in which is seen as the other, and I confess that my inbred socialism makes me bristle both at Coriolanus' contempt for the masses and at Shakespeare's portrayal of them.

But of course the play is much more complex than that: Shakespeare and agit-prop, of whatever slant, simply don't go together. Like Cassius, "he sees quite through the deeds of men".

Caius Martius is the right man for the time. The Volscians have launched an attack on Rome and only he, the prime example of the warrior can beat them back. And beat them back he does, taking the town of Corioli in the process, for which he is awarded the honorific cognomen Coriolanus, to the delight of all, patricians and plebeians alike.

But the right man in war is not necessarily the right man in peace (as Winston Churchill found out in the first post-World War II general election), and the qualities which made Coriolanus a hero in wartime did not endear him to the people in peace, leading - inevitably - to his exile, his linking up with his old enemy, the Volscian Tullus Aufidius, and his eventual death.

None of the characters in this play could be described as sympathetic, with the exception of Coriolanus' wife Virgilia, for even the would-be peacemaker Menenius shares too much in his class's arrogance to be a true bridge between patrician and plebeian. Indeed each is so conscious of his or her own position, indeed so thoroughly obsessed with that position and the rights which it brings with it, that conflict is inevitable.

William Houston thoroughly inhabits the part of Coriolanus: he is the embodiment of the warrior, obsessed with his narrow concept of honour, which has been fed to him by his mother Volumnia (Janet Suzman) since he was a babe in arms. His Volscian counterpart Aufidius (Trevor White) is equally committed but less successful in execution. His opponents in Rome, the Tribunes of the People Sicinius Velutus (Fred Ridgeway) and Junius Brutus (Darren Tunstall), are equally obsessive of their rights and those of the plebeians they represent. There is no way that major conflicts between them can be avoided.

Timothy West, in a superb performance as Menenius, attempts to be the peacemaker, the go-between, in every situation, with some success early on, but even he cannot stand in the way of the tragic inevitability of the ending.

Gregory Doran's production, which has an impressive set by Richard Hudson, takes no sides but paints the situation for us with almost painful clarity.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan