William Shakespeare’s paean to monumentally inept public relations, “Coriolanus,” makes a stirring visit to the nation’s capital with this stylish offering from the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC’s final production in its five-year residency agreement with the Kennedy Center is hoisted high by William Houston’s powerful interpretation of the arrogant Roman general.
Actually, “arrogant” doesn’t begin to capture Houston’s stark interpretation of the tragic character described as “too noble for the world.” Call him maniacally and brutally imperious, with bottomless disdain for the lower class and a penetrating glare as expressive as any Shakespearian verse or prose. Houston’s perf helps make “Coriolanus” an inspired selection for the troupe’s D.C. swan song, precisely in tune with the real-life political arrogance on display in Washington today.
But Houston has met his match in Janet Suzman’s unflappable Volumnia. She’s every inch the stern and manipulating mother who has raised her son to become a merciless conqueror but in the end encourages him to lay down his sword and thus seals his fate.
The superb cast’s sharp performances include Fred Ridgeway and Darren Tunstall as the two conspiring tribunes, Timothy West as wise Menenius, and Trevor White as the proud but admiring rival Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius.
The production’s stylishness is the work of designer Richard Hudson, who created both set and costumes in hues of burnt orange, red and gray. His simple but functional set is dominated by a single immense door that fills the Eisenhower Theater stage, lifting to reveal a labyrinth of Roman hallways that create inviting opportunities for Tim Mitchell’s shadow-filled lighting.
Director Gregory Doran, eschewing any modern touches, infuses the work with high energy and emotion as his characters rip through the full pallet of senses. Memorable touches include a delicious fight scene and one very passionate bonding moment between Martius and Aufidius that raises eyebrows among palace guards and chortles from the audience. The final death scene is quick and emphatic as the RSC bids its appropriate adieu to D.C.