It's 18 years now since Greg Hicks played a dangerous, darkly calculating Tullus Aufidius to the Coriolanus of Ian McKellen in Peter Hall's celebrated production. Hicks's was a performance of such dominating power in its cold virility that some reviewers expressed an eager desire to see him in the title role. His upgrade to the hero of Shakespeare's Roman tragedy is long overdue, but David Farr's tremendously involving samurai-style revival in the Swan Theatre proves that patience is sometimes richly rewarded.
From the haughty visor of his profile down, Hicks is every inch the disdainful patrician warrior, unsocialised for everything but the thick of battle. His voice is a magnificent instrument, well-tuned to steely arrogance in its hieratic throb and ability to slouch contemptuously. He pronounces the word "people" like someone trying to dislodge a midge from his lip. This even-handed production leaves you in doubt that Coriolanus is a chronic liability to a state that is struggling to evolve in the direction of democracy, with Richard Cordery's fine Menenius here a sort of Willie Whitelaw figure to the hero's over-zealous Mrs Thatcher. But it also gives you a searing impression of how terrible it would be to be him – impaled on the contradiction of being asked to betray his nature by the mother who framed and hardened it.
For example, in this staging, there's a piercing hushed intensity to the moment in the scene before the gates of Rome when Coriolanus addresses his little boy, who has come as part of the embassy, and calls upon Jove to give the child military valour and constancy. Spoken from the vanguard of an opposing army, the words have a painful irony and this is heartbreakingly registered in the awkward tenderness and almost nostalgic fire of Hicks's manner during this paternal pep talk. The horns of his dilemma seem to twist palpably in his guts in his relations with his mother (played by Alison Fiske as a more sensitive than normal Volumnia). Unlike in some versions, this matriarch seems to understand the terrible cost of the climb-down she has exacted from him. Under the fluttering confetti of the victory parade, she's an incongruously exhausted, stricken figure who lets out a cry of greeting indistinguishable from a harrowing howl.
Propelled forward with the added impetus of Japanese percussion (thwacked wooden block and the clanging of cracked metal), this Samurai version did not, for me, create a coherent picture of the opposite Volscian camp. Nor did Chuk Iwuji's generalised, permanently glaring Aufidius help Hicks to flesh out the homoerotic fascination between these two rival star-warriors. But the production has bags of energy and bite and ends with a deeply moving depiction of the hero's obdurate integrity. In the climactic sword fight with Aufidius, he's felled by a cheating bullet from behind. Twice he drags himself to his feet to continue the contest and twice more he's shot. This haunting sequence symbolising the superannuation of the hero's values leaves you feeling that the world will not be an unequivocally better place without him.
David Farr, who is also a playwright, has had an extraordinarily productive and various year which has including penning and staging an excellent transposition of Crime and Punishment to Dalston and a sharp satire on the moronising effects of reality TV. Like all highly versatile people, he's in danger of being underestimated because he doesn't fit into one neat pigeonhole. But with only two Shakespeare productions to his credit (in Zagreb and Nottingham), the RSC were taking a risk in entrusting this tricky tragedy to his care. It's a pleasure to report that the gamble has paid off.
'Coriolanus' is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (01789 403403) to 25 Jan, then touring. www.rsc.org.uk
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