Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Josie Rourke
One of the reasons that Shakespeare’s late tragedy is seldom performed is that Coriolanus is such an unlikeable hero. He moves from priggish vainglorious warrior to sentimental family man, neither of whom will garner much of your sympathy; indeed, he only seems human when he turns traitor to Rome. In this Donmar Warehouse production from 2014 Tom Hiddleston is a sinewy and magnetic Coriolanus, but his performance can’t fully resolve the problems in the play.
Another issue with this tragedy is that the action all comes in the first half with Coriolanus (or Caius Marcius as he is first known) taking the city of Corloli single-handedly, appearing covered with blood when the rest of the troops have given him up for dead. Soon after he battles with his nemesis Aufidius, the General of the Volscian army, thrillingly choreographed in the tight space of the Donmar. In Josie Rourke’s production there are fire and water effects in the first 30 minutes, and the camera work by National Theatre Live does well to capture these atmospheric accompaniments.
But after this first section, the play settles down into an examination of personal authenticity and leadership. Coriolanus’s mother, a formidable Deborah Findlay, wants her son to run as Consul, but this would entail that he change his nature and become someone else, someone the Roman people wanted. His mother says that he doesn’t need to alter his character, but should act as if he has. In a wonderful scene we see her instruct her son on how to win the public vote. Bend down, she tells him with ‘thy knee bussing the stones for…the eyes of the ignorant/more learned than the ears.’ This kind of political spin has never gone out of fashion.
It’s much easier to believe in Hiddletson in these early scenes where his pride gets the better of him. Fiercely displaying his battle-scars, he acts as if he is invincible, as if he is one of the gods that he repeatedly invokes. He stands feet apart, his abdomen tense, his back slightly arched, like a statue too in love with itself. And it is this pride that eventually leads him to treachery, joining Aufidius to attack Rome. His one-time enemy greets him like a lover, and Hiddleston’s surprised and bemused face reveals that Coriolanus had no idea that love and hate could be so perilously entwined.
If there is humour to be had in this play, Rourke doesn’t find it often, and the more light-hearted moments come from Mark Gatiss, who as Menenius, acts as a grounding force for Coriolanus and his mother. There is also good work from Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levey who play the scheming tribunes as if there were members from our own Houses of Parliament, and their modern costumes only emphasise that this could be a play for our times. Hadley Fraser is a Northern Aufidius, and his charm guarantees a loyalty from his soldiers that eludes Hiddleston’s Coriolanus.
The final moments of this production are not for the faint-hearted, but it still looks glorious under Mark Henderson’s light design, which also, fortunately, consigns the theatre audience into complete darkness. Indeed you’re only reminded of the theatregoers when they laugh, which isn’t often, and when they rise to their feet at the end. This production might get you out of the sofa too.
Runs here until 11 June 2020