I was delighted when a friend of mine contacted me out of the blue to say she had a spare ticket to Coriolanus at the Donmar – a show I had been vainly trying to get into for weeks on end. Critics have mostly been raving about this production of one of Shakespeare’s goriest tragedies: the story of a man whose courage in the face of his enemies has him revered by his people… until his unwavering pride rears its blood-soaked head.
Though the decision to stage the show at the Donmar was a controversial one, my feelings are generally positive: the Donmar is a small space, stripped bare of gaudiness and grandeur, allowing instead Shakespeare’s exquisite words – and our (anti)hero’s larger-than-life personality – to do most of the work.
Director Jamie Rourke made the brave and successful decision to stick to the Donmar’s usual style of minimalist sets, pounding, palate-cleansing techno music between scenes, and what are mostly contemporary, non-distracting costumes consisting of dark jeans, Doc Martens, and a hint of armour. At the back of the stage, a black brick wall is graffiti’d with the protest cries of the Roman plebeians, then scrubbed clean during the action and used as a backdrop for clever projections. In the middle of the stage, inside a red square painted onto the boards at the start of the show, stands a ladder – a versatile prop which is also easy to ignore when it is not needed.
There is almost no use of backstage in this production: all the characters are mostly omnipresent, in a “switched off” state when they are not in scene, sitting neutrally on chairs lined up by the wall. These chairs are also moved around in choreographed steps implying scene changes.
The decision to cast geeky heartthrob Tom Hiddleston and ‘Sherlock’ writer and star Mark Gatiss has certainly helped put bums on seats – each night the theatre is packed wall to wall by predominantly female audience members who have come from far and wide to watch their favourite stars at work – three of the girls I went with had travelled from the US. And this seems to be a trend this season, with the dishy Jude Law playing Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre, and dreamy 10th Doctor David Tennant in an RSC production of Richard II starting this month.
These are intelligent casting choices, but also admirable ones, bringing Shakespeare to some people who may otherwise not have been tempted to give the Bard a try.
But this is also a suitable casting choice. Hiddleston had a career on stage long before Hollywood came knocking. A member of the current flock of public-schoolboy actors, Hiddleston is also an exceptionally talented, RADA-trained actor whose experience includes parts in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Othello, as well as Chekhov’s Ivanov, and a 2011 film production of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea’ alongside Rachel Weisz.
Said to have been penned between 1605 and 1608, Coriolanus is based on the legendary Roman general Caius Martius. The play was famously proclaimed superior to Hamlet by modernist poet and critic T.S. Eliot, who called it the Bard’s greatest tragic achievement, and even included the character in his own magnum opus, The Waste Land.
As the proud protagonist, Hiddleston is a perfect mixture of haughty, entitled brat, and conflicted man whose stubbornness is ultimately his downfall – a politician who refuses to compromise on his views to pander to his public. His is a powerhouse performance, with each consonant hit like a drum, every emotion played convincingly, and with enough cheek and action to keep everybody interested – even those not too fond of pentameter.
Coriolanus is a victim of his society and of his own mother, Volumnia, played deliciously by Deborah Findlay. She is pushy, idolising her son as a war-god and raising him to glory… then tearfully wondering why he ultimately ends up seemingly devoid of emotion and devoted to war.
Borgen’s Brigitte Hjort Sorensen plays Coriolanus’s wife – a conspicuously silent role in an otherwise verbose menagerie of characters. But, stuck between two as headstrong as Coriolanus and Volumnia, who could possibly dare to speak?
Mark Gatiss provides excellent comic relief as Menenius, a humorous patrician, whose humour is doubly tragic when he is turned away by his beloved hero after a heart-felt appeal. He is also the one tasked with delivering the famous ‘Fable of the Belly’, which Shakespeare plucks from Aesop’s tales – one of the first examples of the ‘body politic’ metaphor.
Most poignant in the end is the slightly overdone homoerotic relationship of ‘togetherness or nothing at all’ between Coriolanus and his nemesis Anfidius, played by Hadley Fraser, which culminates in a gory climax which, while bursting with shock value, is a moment of beautifully striking imagery as the men’s journey mirrors itself: while the end of the first act is marked by Coriolanus washing himself of Anfidius’s blood, the end of the show sees Anfidius washing himself in Coriolanus’s blood.
This is by no means a subtle production – it is gritty and visceral from start to finish, but it is also a pertinent comment on the inner workings of the elite, and the psychology of politics.