David Farr's vaunted samurai production of Coriolanus hits the London stage and what an unalloyed triumph this is. The Japanese elements of the production illuminate this most demanding of plays and offer some fresh insights into the psychology of one of Shakespeare's more complex characters.

Unlike most productions of this play, Farr does not take Coriolanus' pride as the sole reason for his downfall. Of equal weight is his rigid determination to follow the code of honour. Farr makes much of the parallels between the Roman patrician's sense of duty and the samurai battle code - and this Coriolanus absolutely refuses to deviate from that code.

However, Farr takes the parallel even further. Coriolanus is more than an embodiment of the patrician ideal - he is himself the epitome of Roman militarism: once he's banished Rome becomes a more sybaritic place as tribunes gently sip coffees at pavement cafes. For this is the most martial of Coriolanuses. He cries "yes" when he hears that the Volscians are approaching Rome, as if he just scored the winning goal in the Roman cup final.

In the title role Greg Hicks gives a consummate performance. Seemingly using every muscle in his body, he sways, stretches and swoops through the play, at times he almost physically grows - he brings a real feel of Noh drama to the text. But it's not just his movement that astonishes, his face is stretched to an almost permanent sneer when he encounters the plebeians, and his voice thickens with contempt for patrician, plebeian and Volscian alike.

But the real strength of this production is the quality of the other actors. Alison Fiske's Volumnia is terrifying. Even when not speaking, her eyes scan the audience as if daring us to contradict her. When she says; "thy valiantness is mine; thou sucked it from me" we believe it absolutely. There are no hints of Oedipal love that often underpin the Coriolanus/ Volumnia relationship. This is a fearsome matriarch, as much as an embodiment of Rome as her son is.

These two performances would be worth the ticket price alone, but there are other treats in store. Tom Mannion is excellent as the tribune Sicinius Veletus, the politician on the make, a superb display of rabble-rousing and envy in equal proportions. Top marks too for Keith Clouston's percussive music - here is a score that genuinely enhances the production.

If only all stagings of Shakespeare were as intelligent and thought-provoking as this one. It's a long play, but it gripped from start to finish. To my mind, it's the best Shakespearean production that London's seen this year so far.

- Maxwell Cooter

Note: The following review dates from the original production in Stratford, 2 December 2002.

Shakespeare's last tragedy is a curiosity. Cited as his finest by T S Eliot - who regarded Hamlet as an "aesthetic failure" - it is unique among the Bard's tragedies in the complete absence from its central protagonist of "inwardness", or imaginative self-reflection.

The eponymous hero (played by the marvellous Greg Hicks) is a warrior non pareil whose life since boyhood has been devoted to glory and routing Ancient Rome's enemies. But, when, in order to become a consul, he is forced to seek the favour of the masses - whom he loathes - he cannot and is ultimately banished. Unlike Hamlet, he can only behave as he truly is.

While critics have admired the play's formal "perfection", Coriolanus is performed infrequently; it was last seen at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1995.

Here now in the Swan, director David Farr has re-located proceedings to Japan with Ti Green's sparse, thoughtful and often beautiful staging. Blood red Oriental-style banners unfurl from the ceiling as the action is punctuated by flutes and the striking of woodblocks and cymbals.

After seeing his consummate performance as Lord Monchensey, a man tortured by guilt and anxiety, in Eliot's The Family Reunion three years ago, Hicks, terrific actor though he is, is not the man I would have chosen to play Coriolanus. But as the original terminator, he gives an intelligent and finely-wrought performance; his clarity of verse-speaking should be studied by all.

Alison Fiske gives fine backing as Volumnia, his overbearing mother, while rabble-rousing tribunes Velutus (Tom Mannion) and Brutus (Simon Coates) make Peter Mandelson look positively insipid. Richard Cordery lends able support, too, as Coriolanus' longstanding friend and father-figure Menenius, although even the lowliest Star Trek extra would refuse to be seen dead in the truly hideous light-blue blue gown and cap he's made to suffer.

On the downside, there are two ill-advised stabs at knockabout comedy, one involving a lame Jackie Chan-style routine. Coriolanus, a past master at derision, would have had something to say. Overall though, this production is well worth seeing.

- Pete Wood