A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Coriolanus at London’s Old Vic is dominated by the magnificent performance of Greg Hicks in the title role.  A great Roman general and proud patrician, he must sue to the citizens for the elected office of consul, but his arrogance and hot temper lead to his banishment. In revenge, he joins Rome’s enemies, the Volsces. Director David Farr imaginatively sets the play in a Japanese Samurai society, familiar to viewers of the films of Akira Kurosawa like “Throne of Blood,” a version of “Macbeth.”  Mr.. Hicks brings to the role a new dimension of humanity, that of conflicting emotions.  Using Pinter-like pauses, the actor facially and bodily demonstrates attempts at control before exploding in invective under the insults from the Tribunes and enemy Aufidius.  He also reveals his inner struggles as he reacts to the nagging of his mother, the cheers of the crowd who later turn on him, and the blandishments of fatherly senator Menenius.

Coriolanus is an expert on the field of battle, whether in single combat, thrillingly staged as a Samurai clash, or taking on the whole city of Corioli, entering its walls alone – here simply but effectively demonstrated by a line of enemy soldiers – and emerging victorious, covered in blood.  But in peacetime, like many trained in war, he cannot find a place.  He hates politics and doesn’t want the office of consul, with which his mother decides he should be rewarded for his bravery in battle. He is uncomfortable when hailed as a triumphant hero, cheered by the populace. Is his dominating mother Volumnia (Alison Fiske) to blame?  She has raised him, she tells us, to be a warrior, glorying in his victories, and proudly counting up his wounds.  In the scene where she badgers him to return to the marketplace to ask the crowd for votes, after one failure to be “humble” enough, both Ms. Fiske and Mr. Hicks are in top form. When he gives in: “Mother, I am going to the market-place;/ Chide me no more,” the cost of this defeat is told in Hicks’ despairing voice and crumbling stance.

This scene presages the climax, where his mother, wife, and son visit Coriolanus on the enemy side, to persuade him not to attack Rome. Again the mother will prevail, but this time with a difference. She argues for peace, not war, while Coriolanus remains silent.  Then, as she threatens to leave, he, following the original stage direction, “holds her by the hand, silent.”    For the first time, Coriolanus, with his family, finds the love and humanity that his egocentricity has blinded him to.  As he weeps in his mother’s arms, he is aware that her victory will mean his death.  Volumnia, who has lived vicariously in her son’s victories, returns to Rome in a triumphal procession of her own.  Coriolanus goes down fighting, not in combat against envious, plotting Aufidius, but killed by a troop of Volscians.

The Japanese-style music, played mostly by percussion instruments, flutes, fifes, and recorders, underlines or announces important actions, and the postures of the actors create a setting that is distant and picturesque though not slavishly period.