The multitude loves him

THEATRE Coriolanus West Yorkshire Playhouse

Paul Taylor
Thursday 18 May 1995 23:02

Steven Berkoff has directed Coriolanus twice before. The first time was in New York with Christopher Walken in the title role. A couple of years later, he mounted a production in Munich, the angst-ridden rehearsal period which he chronicled in Coriolanus Deutschland. In that book, he records the misgivings he felt "creeping into the lofty fifties" on seeing the young hard male bodies of the cast and admitted to "a streak of envy" watching his leading actor grow into the part. Those were the moments he wished he was doing it himself.

Now, some four years on, he's at last starring as Shakespeare's disdainful patrician warrior in his own third production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. "Come I too late?" Coriolanus asks twice in Act 1 scene 6. To which the truthful answer would be, yes, by about a decade.

It doesn't help that as Tullus Aufidius, the hero's sworn adversary, he's cast a strapping young black actor, Colin McFarlane, who looks as if he could have Berkoff for breakfast, or rather a warm-up for breakfast. Nor has he done himself any favours pitching the decibel level so high. In place of the effortless vocal dominance a Coriolanus needs to command, Berkoff's hoarse rant fights a bellowing battle against both the demands of the spacious Quarry Theatre and some stentorian opposition from the cast.

Played on a geometric marble floor with a row of pillars at the back, the staging has a stark diagrammatic beauty and an exaggerated highly drilled physicality that can produce thrilling results. Exchanging plebeian jackets and hats for a uniform of black shirts, jack boots and shades, the same ensemble of eight actors graphically impersonate, to a percussive sound track, all the play's various groupings; from the mob of Roman citizens to the gang of Volscian warriors.

In a drama that turns on a fatal switching of sides, this continual swapping of identities by the chorus has a certain rationale beyond cost effectiveness. The economy of means is not without its drawbacks, though. Valeria and young Martius have been excised which robs some of the emotional force from the climactic embassy to the hero led by his mother (Faith Brook) and wife (Sara Griffiths).

The impatient arrogance and fanaticism of Coriolanus come through strongly but that self- regarding fastidious side of him which finds putting on any kind of a performance a prostitution of integrity is rather less well- served, Berkoff's acting not being renowned for an addiction to understatement. Overplaying ruins a number of moments, particularly the scene of Coriolanus's tearful capitulation to his mother, where Berkoff cannot be restrained from flinging his arms about like some wildly effusive Maitre d'. Nor is any opportunity resisted for pyrotechnic vocal parody. At times, the effect is of a butch Kenneth Williams. It's only fair to say that mine seems to be a minority perception. The first night audience cheered the director-star to the echo.

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Paul Taylor

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