Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The phrase “one of the lesser tragedies” has dogged Coriolanus for centuries. But the Royal Shakespeare Company’s muscular, full-throated production at the Kennedy Center does a good job of blowing the dust off this little-produced play in a way that seems engineered to make D.C. audiences chortle knowingly. That’s because the play’s really a three-hour treatise on the art of politics. Oh, there’s all the standard-issue, Bard-in-epic-mode stuff (stirring battle scenes, simmering familial struggles), but Coriolanus’ characters spend much of their time advising one another on precisely how to present arguments to best achieve their ends. The play’s premise—can an inflexible warrior who loves his country but hates his countrymen bend enough to lead them politically—seems far-fetched in these cynical times: Could a huge ego actually prevent a person from entering politics? William Houston seems to revel particularly in showing us Coriolanus the aristocratic asshole: sneering, stiff-backed, and openly contemptuous of the fickle populace. That’s important, because technically it’s not Coriolanus’ loathing of the common people that precipitates his downfall; it’s his haughty refusal to pretend he doesn’t hate their guts. As tragic flaws go, pride’s an oldie but a goodie, and Houston enlivens it with an odd choice that works: He smiles. Whether he’s fighting, declaiming, or being vexed by the vox populi, Houston lends Coriolanus the air of a man acutely aware of the absurdity of his situation. As the mother who suckled this wolf, Janet Suzman is fittingly austere and regal, yet she invests the shrewd Volumnia with a surprising empathy that keeps her from coming off as a lo-cal Lady Macbeth. Trevor White, as Aufidius, makes his incongruous but vital transition from enemy to ally believable. Director Gregory Doran finds moments of humor in a script not known for them, and there’s nothing lesser about the particular tweaks he’s made to this bloody tale’s oft-debated subtextual stuff: Oedipal tensions between Volumnia and her son, not so much; homoerotic tensions between Coriolanus and Aufidius, check.