THEATRE / Just mad about the boy: Coriolanus - Swan, Stratford; Twelfth Night - Royal Shakespeare, Stratford; After Easter - The Other Place, Stratford; Arcadia - Haymarket; The Lodger - Hampstead

IT IS the word 'boy' that seals the hero's fate in Coriolanus. This is the ultimate insult that drives him to his last, suicidal assertion of manhood. In the case of David Thacker's production, it carries the added force that, in the midst of his stolidly middle-aged allies and enemies, Toby Stephens looks like a boy.

Maybe the young Albert Finney had the same effect when he took over from Olivier. But the standard image has been that of a seasoned warlord who happens still to be under his mother's thumb. You could thus cut the intolerable protagonist down to size as someone who never grew up. Present him as a boy, though, and there is no belittling immaturity. He cannot be explained away. He regains his mystery. You have to take him on his own terms as a killing machine who is also incontestably a tragic hero; and a political innocent who arbitrates over a political drama of inexhaustible prescience.

Thacker's production has a French Revolutionary setting (by Fran Thompson) with the armed figure Liberty framed in a smashed back-wall, and banners festooning the galleries where the plebeians gather for mass demonstrations. It is an apt analogy in the sense that both Coriolanus's Rome and revolutionary Paris occupy a republican Year Zero whose future is a blank sheet. Coriolanus's Gallic counterpart is obviously the young Napoleon, who spoke of dispersing the rabble with a whiff of grapeshot. The fact that one turned against his country and the other lived on to become its Emperor only reinforces the show's intention: to awaken a sense of alternative possibilities and acknowledge that a prodigious individual can sometimes derail the forces of history.

That is a cold description of a red-hot event. Compared to other recent versions of the play - from which it has emerged as a study of Realpolitik, or the manipulation of public opinion - Thacker's production has no particular case to argue. By the same token, it is also free from cynicism and bias. Every viewpoint is presented with maximum eloquence; every mean, private manoeuvre nakedly exposed. Your attitude towards the competing factions is continually rebounding between admiration and contempt. How should I describe Philip Voss's Menenius? A man who lives for his own comfort, or who wants to be on good terms with everyone? Both are true; and his mounting agony when he is forced first to take sides, then to grovel to his dearest friend, propels the show into the unexpected territory of bourgeois tragedy. There is an equally magnificent partnership between Ewan Hooper and Linal Haft as the Tribunes, weightily resolute men of the people, and also a scheming pair of skin-savers.

The arguments are well articulated, but contained within stage pictures that provoke a gut response. Famine, warfare, plenty: these are the mainsprings of human action, and they dominate the stage from the opening sight of doors slamming shut on the grain store, to the city gates closing on the blood-soaked hero. Vocally, Stephens is not yet on top of the role, and there are passages when he skates over the lines in generalised derision. What he does convey is a youthful sense of indestructibility magnified to that of a demigod. He has a fearsome opponent in Barry Lynch's smouldering, evil-eyed Aufidius. But you can dissect that performance. Stephens, permanently on heat for conflict with his cracked smile and quivering limbs, takes possession of the stage like a force of nature.

With its cute Warwickshire street scenes (John Gunter) and lush orchestral underpinning (Nigel Hess), Ian Judge's production of Twelfth Night has all the signs of a number one tourist attraction. It also overflows with fresh and truthful detail - beginning, if you please, with a comic Orsino (Clive Wood) whose pretended grand passion collapses in ruins once he meets Viola and experiences the real thing. No wonder, given Emma Fielding's performance, which combines the high romance of a bereaved castaway with a commanding comic attack - as in her peremptory treatment of Olivia (Haydn Gwynne) before submissively modulating into the praise speech.

Where you most expect comedy there are fewer laughs than usual. Neither Bille Browne's ostrich-like Aguecheek nor Tony Britton's over-gentlemanly Toby add much to these outlines, and their drunken party consists of stiffly rehearsed routines with not a drink in sight. But any comic team would probably be eclipsed by Desmond Barrit's Welsh Malvolio: an immobile, puddingy poseur, galvanised into a garter-snapping flasher, and then into a tragic clown, howling frantically in the dark. The show ends with the sight of Feste (an exquisitely melodious Derek Griffiths) being thrown out of the house to sing his last song under the night sky. For once, Malvolio gets his revenge.

Until half time, Anne Devlin's After Easter seems to be about Greta, who has renounced her native Belfast for marriage to an Oxford Marxist, and is now afflicted with Roman Catholic visions, for which she is confined to a mental home. Released for Easter, she joins her two sisters at the bedside of their dying father, and what began as a Celtic echo of Claudel turns into the Irish equivalent of a David Storey homecoming drama. In Michael Attenborough's production, the result is a frustrating combination of duty and pleasure. Devlin can write piercingly truthful family scenes ('Isn't this nice?' asks the mother, reunited with all her children, even though they are cowering under a table during a street raid); and she has a lovely vein of inconsequential comedy. Simultaneously, she feels obliged to pack every aspect of sectarian and Anglo-Irish strife into the family quarrel.

The work of a committed company is powerless to relieve the resulting congestion. Given Stella Gonet's rapt performance, you feel particularly cheated that Greta's story is left in mid-air.

In Simon Burke's The Lodger, a reluctant prostitute on the run from her violent pimp winds up in a Northern town as the lodger of a lonely policeman who beats her to a pulp. There may be a moral in there somewhere, but given the computerised dialogue and suspense tricks, I am not encouraged to dig for it. Philip Jackson and Julia Ford make something of the couple's probing overtures: the climaxes defeat them.

It may be pointless to recommend Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, now regally installed at the Haymarket after picking up its third award. But Trevor Nunn's new company (Julie Legrand, Joanne Pearce, Roger Allam) strike me as even more incisive than the original National Theatre cast. And the better you get to know this amazing piece, the more enjoyable it becomes. A glorious night out.

'Coriolanus': Swan, Stratford, 0789 295623. 'Twelfth Night': Royal Shakespeare, Stratford, 0789 295623. 'After Easter': The Other Place, Stratford, 0789 295623. 'Arcadia': Haymarket, 071-930 8800. 'The Lodger': Hampstead, 071-722 9301.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum