David Thacker's new production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which shifts the action from ancient Rome to revolutionary France, is in direct contrast, pulling the focus out to the fullest extent the theatre can bear. Hung with bloody banners proclaiming 'Liberty, Fraternity, Eternity', the Swan's vertically stacked galleries and balconies swarm with voluble citoyens and soldiery. Through a huge blasted hole in the wall at the back Delacroix's great canvas of Liberty Guiding the People can be seen in a state of partial completion.
While this often gripping production was taking place, my feelings were mixed. On one hand, I admired the manner in which Thacker, true to the way Shakespeare breaks the habit of a lifetime in this play and allows the mob a certain measure of responsibility, presents the crowd of plebeians as a collection of individuals, not as an undifferentiated mass.
On the other, I regretted the fact that, because of the updating, there was no real attempt to convey the comparative primitiveness of the rival Volscian society, a politically much less evolved unit and one in which, by a bitter irony, Rome's hero is not the misfit he has become at home.
The production and, in particular, Toby Stephens' highly intriguing portrayal of the hero, kept reminding me of Shaw's remark that Coriolanus was Shakespeare's greatest comedy. Inflexibility is, after all, more naturally a comic than a tragic phenomenon. 'His nature is too noble for this world,' comments his friend Menenius, a line that in this production makes you want to laugh aloud, because Philip Voss's excellent, foppish Menenius shows you it's the sort of nobility that should carry a government health warning.
With his chiselled, cartoonily handsome features, and cruel gash of a grin, Stephens looks more like something off the cover of a Mills & Boon romance than a canvas by David. But the actor's splendid timing of the supercilious putdowns and the mildly ludicrous air he affects of always posing for his own statue, make the portrayal an arrestingly funny one. There's black comedy, too, in the way he shows you the conditioned reflexes of Coriolanus's mother dependency. Caroline Blakiston's erect, imperious Volumnia has only to stalk off in a huff for Stephens to go bounding after her like a little boy lost who'll do anything to be loved.
As his great rival, Aufidius, Barry Lynch has the eerie calm and quietly implacable fanaticism of a semi-psychopath. He's a festering grudge in a uniform. Unlike some Volumnias, who return from their embassy to the hero quite insensitive to the fact that he is now thereby doomed, the splendid Blakiston knows all too painfully and totters through the triumphal march in a state of juddering distraction. Through her, you see the pity of it, whereas for the most part, I felt I was viewing the play like one of the gods whom Coriolanus imagines looking down and laughing at the
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