Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Coriolanus

William Shakespeare
RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon
(2003)

It's eighteen years since Peter Hall cast Greg Hicks as Tullus Aufidius to Ian McKellen's Coriolanus at the National. Hicks's cold, calculating portrayal led some people to express an interest in seeing Hicks in the title role. Now they have their wish and Sir Peter was at the Swan on Saturday night to see Hicks enhance his reputation as one of our finest Shakesperean actors with a menacing, captivating performance.

The night was not without its problems. Sir Peter and Steven Berkoff (who was also in the audience) must have been among the few who noticed that Tom Mannion didn't re-emerge after the first battle, the stage manager sending him to hospital with a cut hand.

Richard Copestake took over as tribune Sicinius Velutus, slipping into the role confidently, while other understudies produced an almost seamless transformation amid what must have been the chaos backstage.

Coriolanus was Shakespeare's last tragedy and the last of his Roman plays. It takes place during a time of famine, with the common people showing disdain for the patricians whom they suspect have hoarded corn for themselves. "Chief enemy to the people" is Caius Martius because he "pays himself with being proud" and his valiant triumphs in battle were not for his country but were "to please his mother".

War with the neighbouring Volscians halts the rioting and Caius Martius is so insanely brave in the capture of the town of Corioli that he is rewarded with the title Coriolanus.

Back in Rome, patricians encourage Coriolanus to become a consul. But his petulance and arrogance mean he is unable to humble himself to win over the commoners and is banished from Rome. His collusion with his former enemy Tullus Aufidius leads to their marching on Rome only for Coriolanus to have to make the ultimate choice: whether to continue his quest for revenge or to spare his mother, wife and young son.

The RSC last performed Coriolanus in 1995. If this performance is anything to go by, it's sad that the play should remain on the shelf for so long before being dusted off. But not every director has the luxury of a cast as good as this one.

David Farr switches the action to Japan, with Samurai warriors appearing at home on Ti Green's stark set with a blood-red floor and backdrop.

Hicks is ideal for the title role. He venomously spits out his lines with outstanding clarity. You almost defend his arrogant stance as justified, bearing in mind the fickle nature of the common people who fail to understand what a valuable asset he is to Rome.

On top of that you also get touching humility when he dresses as a beggar to persuade Aufidius that they should attack Rome together; and an emotional tour de force when he is finally discouraged from destroying Rome. The whole performance leaves Hicks visibly drained.

Alison Fiske is totally convincing as Coriolanus's mother Volumnia, her reasoned imploring guaranteed to melt the heart of even the most committed warrior.

The play is not all doom and gloom. There are comic moments in the text, many of them being effortlessly delivered by Richard Cordery, the wise, reflective senator Menenius who is the first to realise the commoners' folly in banishing Coriolanus.

I should liked to have seen a more chilling performance by Chuk Iwuji as Aufidius; and perhaps Karl Morgan could have used different accents apart from his strong Liverpudlian one when he took on extra minor roles after Tom Mannion's indisposition. But the professionalism on a difficult night was staggering. All in all, a compelling production.

See Philip Fisher's review of this production on its transfer to the Old Vic

Reviewer: Steve Orme