Steven Berkoff would seem born to play Coriolanus. A heroic maverick who, unable to submit himself to the "common cry of curs", takes himself elsewhere and leads a ferocious campaign which brings him to the very gates of the capital... it's a facile comparison, of course, especially as the Berkoff of the '90s has been reborn as something of a pussycat, basking in an unwonted degree both of critical approbation and of crowd-pulling power.
This production for the West Yorkshire Playhouse amply demonstrates both his strengths and his weaknesses. His "design concept" is, as usual, stark and minimal: a monochrome set with a row of black columns behind a geometrical and vaguely fascistic floorcloth, the only props being several upright chairs. The plebs wear scruffy jackets and battered trilbies, the nobles double-breasted pinstripes, the generals black leather greatcoats with primary lapels and cuffs - it is all unspecifically evocative, leaving the performances to do the work. Only Mark Glentworth's martial brass-and-drums score does more than is absolutely necessary, driving emotional and dramatic points home too often with double force.
As Menenius, David Henry never lets the character's all-but-amorous devotion to Coriolanus obscure the fact that he is first and foremost a patrician, and a self-satisfied one at that. Paul Brightwell and Boyd Clack make a telling double-act of the tribunes of the people: the one weaselly and quick to passion, the other driven by the icy ambition of the political climber. In Faith Brook's characterisation, Coriolanus's mother Volumnia neither goads her son actively nor stands marmoreally aloof; she is cool and controlled even when suing on her knees for mercy towards Rome, but never seems unthinking or, quite, unfeeling in her reserved nobility.
An outbreak of 1980s RSC leather has occurred on the body of the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius, who is imbued by Colin McFarlane with a similar nobility and respect. The Volscians here are not barbarians, nor noticeably different from the Romans: the same black-shirted eight-man ensemble simply don dark glasses when playing the enemy. An army is an army, after all, where Caius Marcius Coriolanus is concerned; he has no positive feelings for one city or another, only spurred to revenge when exiled by the Roman tribunes and only ceasing his campaign at his mother's entreaty.
Berkoff deploys his characteristic vocal arsenal as Coriolanus – the booms, the one-syllable bellows, the bass nasal sawing, and the. Very. Slow. Delivery. The acoustics of the Quarry Theatre are not well suited to these vocal extremities (which he also encourages in his cast), and many lines rebound loudly but indecipherably off the back wall.
His verbal violence may be over-compensation for its physical counterpart. Whisper it softly, but the lad's beginning to knock on a bit for this lark. In battle scenes, as the ensemble lurch and mangle the air with the best of them, Berkoff looks uncomfortable even with the occasional boot-boy high-kick. For a ferocious general who can subjugate entire towns single-handedly, this is something of a drawback. Fifteen or even ten years ago, he would have exuded the desired physical menace seemingly without effort. The effort is now too visible.
The production is also hampered by his directorial exuberance. It's nothing new to say that he doesn't know when to stop, and in his original works and adaptations that instinct to fill every moment of performance is often one of his major assets. Here it fights against the script. De-emphasising the words is all very well, until one begins devaluing them. Berkoff's own performance creates a central difficulty: he cannot successfully square the circle of endearing himself to the audience whilst alienating Coriolanus from all strata of Roman society. When a protagonist's tragic flaw has to be taken even partly on trust, the whole tragedy falters.
In short, this is simply Berkoff's Coriolanus, with all that entails. It is not a radical re-interpretation, and the enfant terrible is well past his enfance, but it can still impress, albeit largely by a process of attrition.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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