Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 27 November, 2002

The conspicuous pros and cons of David Farr's samurai-cum-kabuki take on Coriolanus for the RSC in Stratford are each encapsulated in a distinct scene. On the plus side, I cite the family petition scene. Caius Martius Coriolanus, the military hero banished from Rome on the pretext of his overweening arrogance, has allied himself with the rival Volsci and advanced almost to the gates of the city; there, having dismissed the pleas for mercy of his friend and mentor Menenius (a beautifully blithe performance from Richard Cordery), he receives a delegation comprising his wife, young son and, most beloved of all, his ramrod-backed, patrician mother (Alison Fiske, all quiet nobility). In this scene Farr not only brings out the deep parallels between the world of Coriolanus and that of bushido, but more specifically the elegiac dignity with which that code of martial honour is treated in the films of Kurosawa, another explicit reference point.

As against this, when Martius arrives earlier at the household of his Volscian enemy Aufidius (sterling support from Chuk Iwuji) to propose his defection, and boxes the ears of a knot of disdainful serants, Farr stages the scene with a combination of slow, deliberate slapstick and "chop socky" Hong Kong movie-style sound effects from the percussionists who accompany much of the action. This is smirkingly pointless Orientalism. The smirk is seldom present, but every so often there does seem to be a gout of exotica for the sake of it. The early appearance of the blood-boltered Martius, his upper half all glistening crimson, is another moment of Kurosawa-esque iconography, but I wouldn't like to have this production's bill for Kensington Gore stage blood.

Greg Hicks' superb performance in the title role is both expected and not. Hicks' way with the sonorities of verse "the RSC pause", as it is sometimes humorously characterised is masterly, and would chime closely with his character's pride. But Coriolanus's pride is not a simple thing; it is that of a soldier who prefers to let his deeds speak for him. Hicks gets full value out of his key lines, but elsewhere is brusque and businesslike almost to what, with many another actor, would be the point of gabbling.

When he must subject himself to the ritual of standing, supposedly humble, in the market-place to request the plebeians' approval for his appointment as consul, we see his distaste in the perfunctoriness with which he treats the business; when, shortly afterwards, the tribunes of the plebs engineer his downfall, the complex of contending emotions express themselves in silences and looks. The first half ends when, with not quite enough control of his native hauteur, he strides out of Rome, having announced "There is a world elsewhere" for the formal record of the typists transcribing his trial.

This is also the core of the more subtle issue with Farr's production, and it is an odd one for a tragedy. Simply, it makes the hero's flaw too understandable. Prime tragedy is a balancing act between the protagonist's undeniable greatness and the equal culpability of the character defect which ultimately lays him low. Here, Coriolanus is an exemplar of the culture in which he lives, and that culture continues to be upheld throughout, rather than being implicitly damned by association with Martius's downside.

The keynote of the production is a remark of Plato's printed in the programme, that "a man of outstanding eminence" should be neither banished nor subject to others, but rather naturally obeyed by them. This is plainly the view not just of Coriolanus but of the entire society portrayed on the Swan's stage, and it renders problematic what is nevertheless an intellectually fascinating and emotionally exhilarating production.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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