Coriolanus, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

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The Royal Shakespeare Company is saying goodbye to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Later in the spring, work begins on rebuilding. Surely we shall look back on the old theatre as we do at the old Sadler’s Wells – a dump in which we saw many of the greatest performances of our lives. But the theatre historian in me wishes that the audiences of the future could see how the old actors performed here. Projection itself became tremendous: viscerally dramatic.

You could fly in from Milwaukee or Brisbane to say goodbye to the old theatre and you might feel you were getting your money’s worth with the handsome, traditional Coriolanus that Gregory Doran, directing, and Richard Hudson, designing, have staged for the farewell. Yet this isn’t a great production, and at times it doesn’t work on its own terms. In the opening scene alone, Doran and Hudson have given us a scene of assembly in which one actor is calmly bare-chested while others are wearing scarves and thick robes: is this winter and summer?

William Houston, so oddly memorable with his auburn hair and his wide pillar-box mouth, has the appetite, the brains and the glow to make him a great classical actor. But too often his performance falls apart into a series of let’s-win-acting- awards Great Moments, such as the longer-than-long phrases in which he runs two sentences together and the over-prolonged wordless wait before he concedes that his mother Volumnia has vanquished him. He needs more bite of utterance, and more sheer naturalism with the words.

Timothy West, though an unduly more inhibited Menenius and stumbling over some lines, is nonetheless marvellously relaxed in speech, so that more of his lines speed effortlessly into our ears than with anyone else on stage (“I am light and heavy”). Janet Suzman’s Volumnia becomes the play’s most inward character, its wittiest and its most precise: a friendly but domineering mother-in- law, a chiding goad to her son (“You are too absolute”), and a snarling lioness to his enemies. She delivers the two long speeches with which she changes her son’s heart and fate gently, without grandeur; and her last wordless scene shows that she has lost most.
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