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With an incredible performance from star Tom Hiddleston, Josie Rourke’s production of Coriolanus is tense, visceral and unforgettable. Assisted by a very talented cast and inventive staging, both the political strife of Rome and the personal struggles of Coriolanus spring to life in the intimate small-scale space of the Donmar Warehouse. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s least-adapted and little-known plays even after the release of Ralph Fiennes’ excellent 2011 film version, but based on this production the play has plenty of reasons to merit revisiting. Here is a Rome threatened by famine, with scrawled graffiti across the stage demanding grain for the ‘plebs’ who are endlessly at odds with war hero Coriolanus.
As the undisputed star of the show, Tom Hiddleston is absolutely magnetic as the eponymous Coriolanus. Best known as the villainous Loki in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble and Thor franchises, here he delivers a performance of great subtlety and power. Caius Martius Coriolanus is not Shakespeare’s greatest tragic hero: he does not have the grand soliloquies of Hamlet or Macbeth, and is not particularly self-reflective. Coriolanus is first and foremost a soldier, granted the name of Coriolanus for almost single-handedly conquering the city of Corioles. The siege on Corioles is incredibly powerful, as Hiddleston urges his soldiers (including a terrific Alfred Enoch, better known as Dean Thomas of the Harry Potter films) to “Put your shields before your hearts, and fight / With hearts more proof than shields,” as they bear chairs as battering rams before scaling the walls of the theatre, with Hiddleston clambering easily up the ladder that dominates centre stage to attack the city alone.
Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is at once both a charismatic figure of a Roman general and an unlikable, proud man, dismissive of the Roman people he has spent his life fighting to protect. It is to Hiddleston’s credit that he does not try to make Coriolanus particularly pleasant – the scene in which he mockingly pleads for the votes of the people to elect him to the Senate before denouncing them in a vitriolic tirade springs to mind – and yet he remains sympathetic, mostly thanks to Hiddleston’s fine acting. He is capable of effortlessly moving between great comedy, rage and pathos within a single moment, and communicates Coriolanus’ often complex relationships with those close to him with ease.
The play has a great deal to say about gender politics, and Rourke’s production emphasises this through the central figure of Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. Played by Deborah Findlay as a tough, manipulative and forceful woman, it is clear that off the battlefield Coriolanus is almost entirely under his mother’s thumb, as she pushes him – practically kicking and screaming – into running for Senate. Her glee at discovering that her son has been wounded in battle (the better for gleaning public sympathy) casts Volumnia as a shrewd political mastermind. It is therefore disappointing that the other integral female figure, Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, truly excellent in Scandinavian political drama Borgen, doesn’t get much to do outside of weeping for her husband, and her role feels rather wasted in the cut-down script.
Similarly, the fantastic Mark Gatiss of ‘Sherlock’ fame – here playing a Senator and Coriolanus’ closest friend Menenius – feels underused. His Menenius is a witty figure, clad in long scarf and waistcoat, who lights up the stage with a sense of warmth and clever humour, especially in his verbal sparring with the manipulative Tribunes – but outside of an incredibly moving scene in which he futilely begs Coriolanus to leave behind his quest for vengeance, we never get to see enough of him. He fights both for stagetime and for Coriolanus’ attention with Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius, military nemesis of Rome and Coriolanus himself. Often discussed as a prime example of homoerotic subtext in Shakespeare, Aufidius and Coriolanus are utterly fixated on each other, with Aufidius even remarking that his heart leapt more to see Coriolanus than when he saw his own wife on their wedding night. Fraser plays Aufidius as a gruff Northerner, with an intense attachment to Coriolanus, seen bathing in his bloody bathwater, with their relationship culminating in a passionate onstage kiss. ‘Subtext’ indeed.
Though some touches seem less successful than others – the loud electronic music that heralds scene changes being the most glaring to me – this is overall a terrific production. The staging is excellent, doing a great deal with a very small space. Ashes and rose petals fall across the stage at pivotal moments, and when Coriolanus washes away the blood and gore of battle in a shower of water, a scene that could have been purely for the Hiddleston fan-girls in the audience (myself included) was instead a visceral moment of private pain. This is a fantastic production that I count myself incredibly privileged to have seen. Though some characters feel underused, there is not a single weak actor in the cast. From start to finish, Hiddleston gives a fantastic powerhouse performance, and this ensures that the play’s dramatic energy never dies.
Coriolanus will be streamed live into cinemas by the National Theatre on the 30th January, including at the Duke’s in Lancaster, and I thoroughly recommend booking tickets!