- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

The Roman general Coriolanus (William Houston) may be Hector on the battlefield, but unarmed he is unmanned, a petulant brat begging for a snack and smack.

And his stern, warmongering mother Volumnia (Janet Suzman) is just the woman to do it.

The downfall of a proud soldier on edge in the political arena (the inevitable Oliver North allusion can be made) is charted with the cold clang of a sword’s killing stroke in “Coriolanus,” one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest military plays now polished to a commanding sheen in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s production directed by Gregory Doran and playing at the Kennedy Center for the next two weeks.

“Coriolanus,” written in 1608-09, is thought to be the last tragedy Shakespeare wrote, and unlike the playwright’s other brooding heroes, Coriolanus is not one given to introspection, sullen or otherwise. He is a man of action, opaque as someone who always has his game face on, and although he is a striking figure, he does not reveal his thought processes or rationales.

Indeed, in this production, the fighting scenes are when the play most comes alive, the skirmishes rendered with carefully articulated frenzy. The first act, in particular, is the most stiff and exposition-heavy, with abundant speechifying, most of it delivered with the cast standing stock-still.

Although the tolerant patrician elder Menenius (the excellent Timothy West) counsels Coriolanus on how to be politic with the great unwashed, the lack of the common touch alienates him to the point where Coriolanus is exiled from Rome.

His anger quickly accelerates to thoughts of vengeance. Joining forces with his worthiest rival, Tullus Aufidius (Trevor White) — a homoerotic union rivaling that of Achilles and Patroclus — Coriolanus plans to return to the city as an invader, until his mother intercedes. While her pleas spare mass bloodshed, they also guarantee her son’s death.

The ambiguity of the play and the main character has made “Coriolanus” ripe for interpretation, with directors taking everything from a neo-Nazi slant to Freudian overlays and productions that are pointed political comments on the U.S. campaign against the Sandinistas or protests over the Falklands war. Mr. Doran takes a more straightforward approach to the text, seeing the figure of Coriolanus as an exceptional loner who cannot fit into society.

Coriolanus is splendid in isolation and arrogant in company, and Mr. Houston plays him as a fiery fighting machine who sputters when asked to perform civilian duties. Possessing the physique of a Marine and a rich, sometimes guttural, voice, his Coriolanus seems like someone comprised entirely of sinew, blood and sweat.

As Aufidius, Mr. White proves to be an admirable foe and comrade-in-arms. Coriolanus’ greatest match in strength is his mother, Volumnia, whom Miss Suzman plays not solely as a steely Roman matron but as a touchingly humane strategist.

The unadorned interpretation of “Coriolanus” does tend to render everything in black and white, and the double-talking and rabble-rousing people’s tribunals (Darren Tunstall and Fred Ridgeway) lack only licorice-whip moustaches and sneers to further telegraph to the audience their villain status. The plebians, similarly, are reduced to a bunch of easily swayed and malleable yahoos, undercutting the idea that their unrest and mistrust of the ruling class may be justifiable.

The tragedy of “Coriolanus” lies not within the hero’s fatal flaw of pride, but rather whether or not a brilliant warrior can thrive in a time of peace, a time when a great nation struggles with ideals of democracy and populism. This production seems to suggest that once a soldier lays down his arms, he can never find his way back home.

***

WHAT: “Coriolanus” by William Shakespeare

WHO: The Royal Shakespeare Theater

WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 6.

TICKETS: $25 to $78

PHONE: 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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