While I’ve managed to see most of Shakespeare’s plays on stage, Coriolanus is one that has always eluded me – not through any deliberate policy but simply circumstance. The only time I can remember seeing it at all was in a TV version with the great Alan Howard – whether he was great in it I really can’t recall. So it was with a sense that, even if it wasn’t in the theatre, I was moving a little closer to completion of the canon that I took my customary seat on a Thursday evening for the latest broadcast from National Theatre At Home. I was struck, repeatedly, by the play’s contemporary resonances.
In fact, the recording is from a few years back. It is the Donmar Warehouse’s production directed by Josie Rourke in 2013 and starring Tom Hiddleston as Caius Marcius, later entitled Coriolanus in honour of his brave deeds in capturing a town almost single handed. At the time Hiddleston had just become a major player in Hollywood and tickets for the small auditorium were like the proverbial gold dust and sold for a small fortune. And he is worth the price of admission as he demonstrates a controlled sense of power in dealing with his own soldiers, the Roman citizens, politicians, his family and his great enemy Aufidius. It would be easy to play the part as a man who shouts a lot and metaphorically stamps his feet in petulant fury until he gets his own way but Hiddleston does so much more with this – especially when he is still and the pain he is experiencing is present in his eyes rather than his voice. We begin to understand that the surface level bravado covers up the insecurities and uncertainties of a man who has been brought up to be a ruthlessly ambitious killing machine, never to back down and certainly never to apologise or explain. I’m afraid Mr Cummings’ recent behaviour is all too evident.
The other powerhouse performance comes from Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, the mother from hell. Findlay is one of those actors who never seems to give a bad performance and she is in top form here blazing with righteous indignation and a single mindedness in achieving a goal even if (as a woman) she has to do this through a third party she can bend to her will (shades of our current political situation again). Effectively she condemns her own son to death in the same way that Lady Macbeth does her husband and Findlay brings a frightening intensity to her clear-sighted portrayal. To complete a triumvirate of excellent performances there is also Mark Gatiss’s wily politician Menenius. In contrast the performance here is light and understated though none the less powerful for that. The rejection scene when his virtual (actual?) son turns against him is a small gem of controlled emotional acting. The rest of the (surprisingly) small cast give good value too; I particularly liked the double act of Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levey as a pair of conniving politicians. The one false note for me was the rather cliched handling of the Volscians; turning them into stock northerners was not a wise decision. While it helped with differentiating who was who, it came across as a bit too pat for my liking.
Coriolanus is not a particularly quotable play which in some ways benefits it; we are not sitting waiting for the famous moments which helps the lines to seem fresh and the ideas behind them to emerge as spontaneous. This is certainly also reinforced by the lean and spare direction of Rourke and the design of Lucy Osborne who strip the playing area back to basics and where chairs and a ladder or two are the only stage furnishings. With little else to distract, the focus becomes entirely on the performances and the harsh rhetoric of Shakespeare’s politicians who are battling for supremacy and to win over their fickle voters (shades of…no, I can’t really go there for a third time)
The movement and fight choreography of Jonathan Watkins and Richard Ryan brought excitement to the physical conflict and Hiddlestone’s appearance covered in blood and prosthetic scars was a real moment. It continued the tradition of gore which seems to be a feature of all Shakespeare’s Roman plays as he shows democracy struggling to make headway against the Fascistic power grabbing of individuals (Caesar, Andronicus et al). Nowhere is this more obvious than when Coriolanus addresses a mob he evidently despises trying to win their votes and support. Despite his apparent reluctance to show his scars it is clear that here is a man who has privilege at his core and an absolute belief that he is not like other men and should be treated as such. As Hiddleston has said in interview: “He speaks in arrogance and hubris and entitlement. Someone who feels that he is from a class of people who are born to rule” I’m saying nothing!
Production photos by Johan Persson
Coriolanus is available on NT At Home’s You Tube channel until June 11th. Click here
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