All hail Coriolanus, which the Royal Shakespeare Company has brought from its London triumph for a brief engagement at the Odeon, ending on Sunday. Curtain time is 8pm and there will be a matinee on Sunday at 2.30. This guest visit affords an opportunity not to be bypassed for here is as stimulating a playhouse experience as the local season has disclosed.
Terry Hands' mise-en-scene is utilitarian, simple and straightforward, fulfilling Moliere's prescription for the three essentials: a platform, actors and a passion. The background of towering wooden portals in somber hues is stark and foreboding and the electric switchboard is in constant operation, shooting shafts of light from above.
The costuming and appointments do not illustrate ancient Rome, but neither do they freakishly distort the scene into anything utterly incongruous, while Ian Kellam's score - with the hands of the conductor spotlighted - provides theatrical emphasis, casting and sustaining moods, and accenting the drama's relentless sweep.
Shakespeare's bitter tragedy was inspired by Plutarch's account. Caius Marcius, afterward Coriolanus, a triumphant warrior, is contemptuous of the common people. He is made a candidate for consulship in homage to his military services. The ttribunes, intent on retaining their hold, rouse the mob against him and banish him from the city. Choking with disgust, he turns to Rome's enemy and his former foe, Aufidius, leader of the Volscians, and enlists in his march on Rome. Only the pleas of Volumnia, Coriolanus' patriotic mother, dissuade him from razing his native city. He has both attacked and preserved Rome, but his last-minute peacemaking is regarded as treachery by Aufidius, who stabs him.
The play was written in 1608, the year that Shakespeare's mother died, and in rephrasing Plutarch's history the Bard magnified Volumnia into a figure of heroic and over-shadowing size. It is the maternal influence that guides the hero throughout. His battlefield victories are dedicated to her; in her he finds solace for his thwarted political career and the blindness of the masses that oppose him, and it is she who is responsible for his refusing to raise his mighty hand against his mother city as it is she who is responsible unwittingly for his death.
The abysmal stupidity, blindness and cowardice of the mob that enrages Coriolanus and drives him to treason is the obligato of the tragedy. Shakespeare had already pictured the facile means by which crowds are swayed in Julius Caesar. Here he scores the point repeatedly: in the opening in which the grumbling plebs are quickly silenced by a few sharp words; in the ttrial scene in which they basely reject their saviour, and once more when they tremble in panic before the threatening holocaust and would lynch the rulers that have led them to the edge of catastrophe.
Alan Howard's Coriolanus is the gruff, hot-tempered soldier, a sort of natural force of fierce independence, although his surface image is motivated by his mother. Howard has imposing presence, speaks the noble lines ringingly, and reveals himself as an actor of exceptional attainments. When Benson as Coriolanus on being banished uttered the line: "There is a world elsewhere," it is recorded that the house wept openly. Howard delivers it as a cry of angry defiance. His is a riveting performance, a strong, commanding portrait, but it is not perhaps the complete and complex Coriolanus of Shakespeare. Howard conveys with ironic humour the scene in which he chides the populace in begging for their "voices"; he looks the valiant, battle-scarred warrior, and his submission to his mother's demands constitutes an episode that gives fresh dimension to his characterization, but probably deliberately he avoids the note of infinite pathos.
Maxine Audley's Volumnia ha genuine grandeur, the overwhelming majesty of the Roman matron in speech and deportment, and Hands' direction has intelligently managed the interplay of mother and son. Graham Crowden's Menenius is a third contribution of histrionic artistry. Both his reading of the famous parable about the body's members against the belly, recited to extinguish the fires of insurrection, and the scene in which he beseeches audience with the exiled Coriolanus - to, first, be buffeted about by the guards and then to glory in his welcome - are superbly accomplished.
There is sound acting in support, notably by John Burgess and Oliver Ford-Davies as the wily tribunes and by Charles Dance as the implacable Aufidius, and Hands has managed the citizens' disputes and stage battles with striking effect.
Thomas Quinn Curtiss
International Herald Tribune, 6.4.79.