Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Theatre Review • CORIOLANUS • RSC @ The Old Vic • 2003

Act V, Scene III of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. ...

Act V, Scene III of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Engraved by James Caldwell from a painting by Gavin Hamilton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Japan in the early twentieth century — a turbulent place of military incursions and unstable social order. A state of transition exists as the power is shifted from the ruling élite to the democratic parties. The story of a stubborn warrior and the demands of the people he serves…this is the world of David Farr’s exciting production of Coriolanus for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Old Vic.

Moving the action from ancient Rome not only makes for a visually vibrant spectacle, it also provides a recognizable social context for the more visceral aspects of war — nowhere more so than when Greg Hicks’ Samurai-wielding Coriolanus emerges from battle literally dripping with the blood and entrails of his enemies.

The play is Shakespeare’s last tragedy and may be seen by some as a warning for public servants who put personal goals before their wider responsibilities.

By shifting events eastwards Farr clearly wishes to present us with a Coriolanus who crosses both centuries and continents, for he makes no attempt to reproduce Japanese society in all its miniature courtesies and rituals; these are clearly western characters in fancy dress. And in Greg Hicks he serves up a contemporary hero/villain, buoyed by his success and secure in his social superiority. You won’t find even a nod in the direction of traditional Noh theatre here, nor its eccentric makeup. This Imperial Japan is the land of the rising plebeians where public accountability is paramount and social etiquette missing presumed dead.

Central to the production is Hicks’ towering Coriolanus. High on the octane of violence he is unable to accept that, in a democracy, he must also garner the approval of the masses he so spitefully dismisses. In his eyes he can, of course, do no wrong — perhaps a prerequisite in a soldier — and it is only when he succumbs to the wishes of his mother and spares Rome his ultimate revenge for banishing him, that he is undone. His performance is perfectly pitched, with both power and subtlety, and a terrifying line in dry humour that would slice through many a malcontent even before a blade is drawn.

Hicks is ably supported by a strong company: Richard Cordery’s avuncular Menenius provides whimsical relief from the chaos of battle, and his deflated conclusion is genuinely moving — if only he would learn to breathe in the right places. As Volumnia, Alison Fiske lacks no passion but occasionally her gravely voiced delivery is unclear and Coriolanus’ crucial relationship with his mother remains sketchy. The twitchy tribunes, played with admirable sanctimoniousness by Tom Mannion and Simon Coates, add an undercurrent of subterfuge to what is essentially a simple plot of rejection and thwarted revenge.

Mainly played on a bare stage with the smoke of battle ever-present, visual interest resides in Ti Green’s dazzling costumes, while Keith Clouston’s sparsely orchestrated musical interspersions intelligently underline the emotional cut-and-thrust of the plot.

‘Ill-schooled in bolted language’, Coriolanus, the warrior, asks pertinent questions of us about what we demand of our leaders; the certainty of conviction versus the humility and sophistication required to engage with the public. And in this precisely staged and energetic production we are moved to believe that perhaps we can’t have both.

John Biggins © June 2003

The RSC’s production of Coriolanus opened at the Old Vic on 06-06-03 and continued in repertoire with The Merry Wives of Windsor until 23-08-03.

Originally published 09-06-03

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