Shakespeare wins Hands down

I beseech the Royal Shakespeare Company, when next its representatives kindly hand me a copy of the programme at Stratford, to stick the pages unopenably together with some powerful adhesive; I really do not think my temper will stand any more of the factitious twaddle which they regularly assemble in it to point some idiotic moral. For their new production of Coriolanus, for instance, the sections are labelled "Man and State," "Mothers and Sons" and "Killing and Dying"; few of the quotations under these headings have anything to do with Shakespeare, and none has any discernible connection with the performance.

Nor could they have; for the production by Terry Hands is as untendentious as it is magnificent; this is the strongest, clearest and most consistent Shakespeare I have seen anywhere for years. It is cast with immense care, right down to the alsos (Arthur Whybrow makes a considerable mark among the uncanonically sub-divided soloists in the crowd of Roman citizens); it is nobly set and costumed by Farrah, with no scenery other than rearing black walls, and rich clothes almost entirely in monochrome. (Until Coriolanus in the last Act enters in blood-red, the only colour anywhere is the blazing hair of Fleur Chandler as Virgilia); and Coriolanus is what Shakespeare made him, which is the hero of the play.

A flawed hero, to be sure; that, after all, is a definition of the tragic protagonist. But the icy splendour of this hero's hot contempt for the mob is not to be denied its place at the heart of the play and of the spectator's sympathy, and when Menenius (played by Graham Crowden with an ironic grandeur that almost walked off with the entire production) says "Rome and her rats are at the point of battle" we are allowed to see Coriolanus through Shakespeare's eyes, rather than those of Chairman Mao.

Though the staging nowhere falls short in imagination, it is free from stunts and tricks. The stylised melee and the realistic hand-to-hand encounter work equally well, neither invalidating the other, and the shooting-stick with which Menenius is equipped (though I am not quite certain whether this was the idea of the director or of Mr Crowden's osteopath) seems not at all out of place, any more than the overturning of the judgment-table by the condemned Coriolanus, a gesture as fitting as it is dramatic. And with the beserk frenzy of the final lynching, Mr Hands thrusts home remorselessly the point of a play which was, among other things, Shakespeare's farewell to tragedy.

Alan Howard, Maxine Audley and Fleur Chandler

Alan Howard is a natural Coriolanus, and he strikes the right note of sandunga from the first to last. But his voice is getting perilously mannered; that back-of-the-throat gurgle is now tiresome, and he out-Scofields Scofield in the narrowness of his vocal range - so much so that the ear quivers in relief and pleasure when he adopts a falsetto to jeer at the rabble.

That may seem ungenerous, and will seem even more so to those who see the production; but I only go into such critical particular because Mr Howard is in general so good. He has nobility, unwavering self-assurance and an effortlessly dignified bearing, and he sttrikes true Shakespearean fire repeatedly, from "They have a leader" to "You common cry of curs."

Maxine Audley is an excellent Volumnia, warm and regal at the same time; Julian Glover as Aufidius is good enough to make his final treachery unbearably painful; Tim Wylton's Sicinius provides exactly the right weight for the play's balance. This production is handsome in every sense of the word, and I shall certainly return to it. When I do, I hope the air-conditioning will have ceased to reduce the temperature in the auditorium to its present level just below Absolute Zero; I lost my left ear and three toes from frostbite.

Bernard Levin

Sunday Times, 23.10.77


Playing Shakespeare/Coriolanus