Like a swallow flying south for the winter, but at the wrong time of year and less feathery, the RSC’s productions of Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor have finally come to rest at the Old Vic following performances at the Swan, Stratford, a twelve venue national tour and a run in America. Matthew Amer caught up with Greg Hicks, Coriolanus himself, for a quick chat about samurai, Brazilian dancing and Roy Keane.
It has been a long journey for the cast of Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor, a journey which started back in October when the shows opened at the Swan Theatre, Stratford. Since then the cast have been all over the country, calling at schools and leisure centres in places as far afield as Truro and Sunderland whilst also finding time to perform across the pond in Michigan. But the non-stop lifestyle hasn’t got Greg Hicks down. Being one of the RSC’s most seasoned and experienced actors, to him it has been like water off a soliloquy-reciting duck's back. “It’s been bracing. I think that’s the word. We haven’t really stopped since we started doing it in Stratford. In many ways one of the great advantages of that, is that you get a phenomenal chance to see the plays more and more deeply as the days go on. The fact that we played in these converted leisure centres which weren’t originally designed to be theatres and now I find myself in possibly the greatest theatre in the world is really interesting as a theatrical progression.”
"The walls just drip with memories."
The theatre which Hicks speaks of so fondly is Waterloo’s own Old Vic. He has worked here previously as a member of Peter Hall’s much lauded but now disbanded company who presented an incredible season of work which included Waiting for Godot, The Seagull, Waste and King Lear. Although Hicks is rueful of the company’s sad demise, his love for the venue lives on. “It is actually my favourite theatre in the world, apart from Epidaurus in Greece. The walls just drip with memories of people, acoustically it’s absolutely beautiful and it’s just such a warm and welcoming stage.”
It would be a hard proposition for anyone to find two more contrasting plays to present in repertoire than the RSC’s choice of the harrowing tragedy Coriolanus and the bawdy comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. Performing in the two very different productions for a solid eight months might have left Hicks with the strange feeling of having a split personality. Daily switches between the passionate ferocity of Caius Martius the warrior anti-hero of Coriolanus and the comic petulance of Dr Caius, The Merry Wives of Windsor’s French physician might have left a lesser man thinking he had more personalities than an impressionists’ convention. “In fact, it’s one of the things that has kept me sane. I have such an extravagant time in Merry Wives comedically. It’s a welcome antidote to playing the intensity and ferociousness of Coriolanus. I find it quite healthy psychologically to move from one to the other.”
In what seems at first glance to be a strange choice of inspiration, Hicks based the characterisation of Caius Martius – brave, proud warrior – around Roy Keane – thuggish, outspoken footballer. “When we started rehearsing, we looked around for contemporary Coriolanuses who might be an inspiration. It was David Farr’s [the director] suggestion that I look very carefully at Roy Keane. I’m not a particularly passionate football watcher, but I did start to look at him and read a bit about him. I could see what David meant: There he is at half time in the dressing room, slagging off his team mates, saying ‘What the f**k’s the matter with you? Pull your fingers out’. Not compromising his politics, not compromising his position of a singular person in a very big business. Also he’s incredibly short tempered and Celtic and wild, but he’s also a bloody good footballer and central to Manchester United’s success. The more I looked at him, the more I thought ‘yeah, that’s a really good parallel actually.”
It is not a practice that Hicks uses often, no heart-on-his-sleeve Henry V modelled around David Beckham or bad-business-deal-making King Lear based on Terry Venables. “You can imagine Hamlet sitting in a coffee bar in Paris or London with a problem. Coriolanus is a creature out of a different historical context. That kind of warrior of class you don’t find these days. So the search for a contemporary figure who might resonate was quite important to me because I couldn’t make him fit into any of our contemporary thinking. It’s such an uncompromising stand he takes, so un-PC. I’m sure Roy Keane wouldn’t do all the class thing that Coriolanus does. I’m sure he wouldn’t be interviewed saying ‘I think the working classes are covered in s**t and shouldn’t be given the vote’.
"I think the working classes are covered in s**t and shouldn’t be given the vote."
David Farr has shifted the play’s setting from ancient Rome to the feudal Japan of the samurai. A move like this might anger the Shakespeare purists, but Hick sees it as a definite advantage. “It’s not the Mikado we’re doing here, it’s just a helpful frame in which to explore the play. The rigidity of the samurai world, the formality of it, the depth of it, the precision of it is absolutely perfect. I personally find the whole martial sense of it really helpful because he’s [Coriolanus] a killing machine.”
As part of the RSC’s ongoing relationship with the University of Michigan the touring productions spent a spring residency in America alongside the company’s other touring production Midnight’s Children. The short run highlighted a casting decision which had until that point gone relatively unnoticed, that of Chuk Iwuji; a black actor in the role of Tullus Aufidius. “It hadn’t occurred to me that when, at the end of the play, I call him a slave that in America the resonance would be much sharper. You could feel the atmosphere in the house really chill.” The depth of resonance continued as they were performing a piece about a man described by many as a warmonger at the same time as the conflict in the gulf was at the forefront of the world’s consciousness. Stark reminders to anyone who says Shakespeare isn’t relevant in the modern era.
Hicks’ onstage relationship with Iwuji has benefited from a shared interest in capoeira. Hicks has visited Brazil twice to study the South American hybrid of martial arts and dance, and has his tutor and friend flying over to England later in the year to do some work with the RSC. He sees his interest in capoeira, and also the Japanese dance form butoh, as “a personal odyssey to break down my rather reserved Englishness”. Practicing these art forms, which place emphasis on the movement of the body, have helped him to become more physically expressive on stage. In particular practicing capoeira with Iwuji has had an impact on Coriolanus. “We found that stuff we were experiencing in capoeira was bleeding into what we were doing as actors together. The way we might look at each other, or vie with each other, or play with each other, or flirt with each other, or challenge each other, or try and trip each other up were all very much part of that whole capoeira world.”
"You could feel the atmosphere in the house really chill."
As well as for his physicality, Hicks has garnered a reputation for his liberal use of the dramatic pause, leaving audiences hanging on his every utterance. “People say it is a trademark of mine, although now I’m… [a pause, reflecting dramatically on what the next words to pass his lips may be] working on getting rid of it altogether. Ha ha.” Clearly the comic timing Hicks so rarely gets to use in straight productions is well practiced off the stage. “Mozart was once quoted as saying that ‘the true music lies between the notes’. I suppose I have always been rather impressed by that.”
The cynical theatregoer could claim, if they were feeling particularly antagonistic, that having a reputation for dramatic pauses is a failsafe way to disguise the struggle to remember lines, Hicks agrees: “That’s actually something that Sir Ralph Richardson used to do. If he ever forgot his lines he would simply let it hang in the air until something came to him. Of course, that was very much part of his style. People thought he was just letting these new thoughts emerge from the ether when, in fact, he was just waiting to remember what the line was.”
Hicks’ theatrical career to date has been extremely impressive. He has worked extensively with the RSC and the National Theatre, has been directed by some of the most respected directors around and acted alongside a list of theatre greats. Although there are a few more Shakespearean and Chekhovian mountains he would like to conquer, Hicks’ future may well be away from theatre. “I think it’s time for me to start looking in another direction. It’s about time I did movies because it’s 27 years and I haven’t made one yet. I’ve got to leave the theatre to do that so it depends on when I choose to do it, which will be in the next few years. I’m just waiting to find out whether someone will trust that I can do it. We’ll see what the Old Vic brings. Lots of people will come and see this and some of them may well be film-makers, so we’ll see.”