Strong, stupendous Mr Howard

Although Coriolanus is listed as a tragedy, it has been the fashion to play it as a tragedy without a hero, in which the line, "The people are the city" counts for more than individual courage.

There could be no greater contrast with the republican treatment of the play in the RSC's "Romans" season than this new version by Terry Hands. In place of an historically detailed setting, the action is taken out of time and reduced to theatrical essentials. Farrah's set consists simply of two huge doorways at the back wall and mid-stage positions, and instead of crowds, the competing forces are represented by small compact groups who make their statements in formalised riot and slow-motion battle, casting superhuman shadows, and then freeze or vanish into the darkness. The whole show is lit directionally so that individuals get heightened prominence at the expense of democratic spectacle; the main focus being Alan Howard's stupendous central performance.

A non-political production of Coriolanus sounds a contradiction in terms, but Mr Hands has gone as far as it is possible to achieving one. It appears to be rooted in the current dread of collectivism (the programme even carries a quotation from Paul Johnson), and much is made of the exchange between the Tribunes and Menenius: "We did it not alone". "You do very little alone", replies Graham Crowden's balefully affable Menenius.

On these lines the performance escapes politics by concentrating on the conflict between those who bend to circumstances and the one character who cannot do such violence to his own nature. The two Tribunes (Tim Wylton and Oliver Ford-Davies) are not treated as buffoons; they simply act together, looking to each other for support and often speaking in unison. The same could be said of the patrician faction. All this has the effect of subduing individual character, but in the circumstances the sacrifice is worth while.

We are used to seeing actors searching out Coriolanus's weak spots. One point about Mr Howard's hero is that he is a strong man full stop. There is nothing reductive in the portrait. That obviously goes for the battle scenes which he dispatches with that trumpet voice which is the most thrilling sound at present to be heard on the English stage.

It applies even more to his behaviour in Rome. Whereas everyone else is enacting a social role, Mr Howard strictly observes his character's claim: "I am the man I play". He is incapable of doing otherwise. Trying briefly to follow his mother's instructions and adopt a mask of humility, he turns into an infant barely able to walk. Finally he is not a mother's boy. There is no great emotional crack-up to Volumnia's supplications: and as Maxine Audley plays them, they are more rhetorical than affecting.

He simply chooses to spare Rome and is never more thoroughly in command of the situation than when he embraces his family under the baleful eye of Julian Glover's Aufidius. He knows it means death, and it is he who cheerfully impales himself on Aufidius's sword at the end.

With its hand-holding duels and arrays of studded black leather, this is an uninhibitedly romantic treatment of the play: it is also the most exciting I have seen.

Irving Wardle.

The Times, 22.10.77.

Playing Shakespeare/Coriolanus