Of all Shakespeare's heroes Coriolanus must be the most repellent. A blood-lusting soldier who can't put off his armour and stand forth as a man, he stomps across the play like a stormtrooper, stiff and self-righteous to the end.

All credit then to this final production of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Stratford season, which makes silk purses out of a sow's ear. Terry Hands, the director, has set the play in a black imprisoning space through which great blocks of steel grind sideways into doors and walls.

Exotic figures inhabit it. Graham Crowden's cackling Menenius appears in black Samurai robes, waving a fan, to rebuke the plebs for their disloyalty. The two tribunes wear pale trench-coats with the collars turned up and solemnly shake the hands of the foot soldiers like union politicians.

The soldiers in close-fitting black leather armour studded with silver and gold are the most magnificent, and among the soldiers Alan Howard's Coriolanus strides like a god. Prancing, blood-spattered and triumphant, on the ramparts of Corioles, or raised high in the air on the pikes of his warriors, he blazes with a furious delight.

There is an astonishing fire and strength in this actor. His Coriolanus is electric. His reconciliation scene with Volumnia outside the gates of Rome is played with such passion that it almost convinces us of his humanity. And at the end, his best response to Aufidius is to bare his teeth in a grin of animal rage.

With the exception of Julian Glover's strangely wooden Aufidius, and Maxine Audley's Volumnia, whose sound and fury leaves no echo behind, all the performances are sound. I particularly liked Tim Wylton's Sicinius, the little man elected to ludicrous authority nervously rubbing his hands on his handkerchief. But it is Alan Howard who carries the play and raises it, if not to tragedy, at least into vivid and stirring melodrama.

London Evening Standard, 24.10.77.


Playing Shakespeare/Coriolanus