A sign of the times – a saying particularly relevant for this production. Not only did Director Josie Rourke perform something of a coup in casting Tom Hiddleston as the titular character, but ably supported him with several rich choices. She then also set this, one of William Shakespeare’s lesser known and unpopular plays, in the stark Donmar theatre (formally a Banana warehouse), devoid of decorum and grand modern set-pieces. It’s thus a pure and guttural experience, anchored deeply in the stellar performances on display. Hiddleston may be the draw card and a commanding presence, but the entire cast thrives within this dark and shadowy arena.
Coriolanus is a tragic story set in a time when Rome is in the midst of famine and is simultaneously threatened by an old enemy. The Senate calls upon Rome’s long serving and illustrious defender Caius Martius to quell this uprising led by Volscian army leader Tullus Aufidius . The Roman army, Commanded by Cominius meets Tullus in the field, whist his deputy Marcias leads a cohort to the Volscian city of Corioles. The siege is initially unsuccessful, but Martius manages to open the gates to slip inside and take the city. Exhausted and wounded he returns to aid Cominius in defeating the remaining Volscian force, meeting his old foe (sworn as a blood enemy) Tullus in combat once again. The battle only ends when Aufidius’ men drag him away from the field.
Returning triumphant, Cominius honours Martius after practically singlehandedly sacking a city, by christening him ‘Coriolanus’. Back in Rome, Volumnia – Coriolanus’ mother – encourages him to run for Consul, a political role for which he is ill-suited. He reluctantly bows to her will and quickly gains support from the Senate (led by long time friend and mentor Minenius) and initially the commoners as well, but two Roman tribunes , Brutus and Sicinius scheme and raise riot amongst the people opposing him as Consul. In a tirade against this opposition Coriolanus vents his rage against the concept of popular rule, seeing himself as above the common man, even going so far as to call them measles. In response to his words the two tribunes label him a traitor and order him to be banished; Coriolanus’ retort is to banish Rome from his presence.
Exiled from Rome, Coriolanus seeks out Aufidius and offers himself up; that the general may either kill him, or join him in a vengeful assault on Rome.
Anyone who enjoys great theatre, or simply good acting. This is the purest form of the art. Its intense and one of Shakespeare’s most guttural plays. (the play, including intermission, is about 2 and half hours long)
“What do you think,
You, the great toe of this assembly?”
— Menenius Agrippa adressing two common Roman citizens. (Act I, Scene 1.)
The true strength of this play is simply the effortless depth in performance in the central cast. It would be easy to dwell on the fame and phenomenon that is Tom Hiddleston, but the truth is that Coriolanus is an unpopular anti-(tragic)hero; so this is a rather wise casting as one is naturally sympathetic toward Hiddleston. Another aspect was always that this was one of Shakespeare’s least explored heroes, so you’re less aware of his inner workings and motivations, unlike the introspective Hamlet for instance. Coriolanus was always portrayed as a rather elemental and unshakeable character of almost mythical Achilles-type stature thus contributing to his unpopularity in some ways, but Tom Hiddleston instils that (perhaps missing) sense of humanity to what is ultimately, a war machine.
But of course a play such as this is held up by several pillars, one of which is that of Volumnia – Deborah Findlay seems to pour her soul into the performance, embodying a grieving mother pleading with her son who is on a road to a darkest of ruin. Then there’s others still, Mark Gatiss (Mycoft on BBC’s Sherlock) as the doting and amusing Minenius known for his speech on the body politic, Hadley Fraser as Aufidius (the meeting between Coriolanus and the slightly off-centre Aufidius, after the exile, is surely one of my favourite scenes which culminates in an awkward kiss), Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Virgilia – Coriolanus’ passionate wife, Peter De Jersey as General Cominius (who stirred the audience with a rousing speech to honour his comrade) and Elliot Levey (Da Vinci’s Demons, Philomena) as the conniving Brutus – a role which certainly suits him.
Suffice is to say there was plenty of tears, kisses and yes, blood.
It is a triumph in all regards, with added credit going to the brave director Josie Rourke for making this, as mentioned, lesser known work, an almost mainstream event appealing to all ages despite its heavy content.
Regarding the opening saying, this play once again proves the timelessness of Shakespeare’s work, as Coriolanus is as relevant now as it has ever been. One need only turn on the news to witness popular discontent with governments – from the Middle Eastern uprising of a couple of years ago, to the current turmoil in Ukraine, Bosnia, Thailand and Venezuela. The themes of people, democracy and power are central, not to mention one man’s pride, which came before his fall.
Coriolanus was a man so set in ways, so steadfast in his beliefs – almost beautiful in its singularity and even purity – that it would eventually lead to his destruction.
Men and women; we may be tossed into different scenarios, set to perform different roles, but our desires remain so similar.
Ultimately Coriolanus is dominated by characters, strong characters, and their interweaving strands in a seemingly vast fabric –demonstrating how a simple and heart wrenching conversation can make such a huge difference, a center piece to how motivations and convictions compel us to act. Then there’s the impact of one man on another, and the ripples that flow to so many others. There is so much to think about in this dense work and yet it remains so simple, and it is that simplicity and candid visceral emotion and intensity that drive it forward and what Rourke has capitalized on so beautifully.
“Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy: mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.” — Coriolanus (4.5.238)
If you get a chance have a look at one of the stage plays on offer – National Theatre Live in Nouveau cinemas. Limited screenings of King Lear and War Horse are on the menu for later in the year…