Coriolanus (1605/8): William Shakespeare

Coriolanus: Donmar Warehouse


(Donmar Warehouse, 2013, directed by Josie Rourke)

During the Donmar Warehouse’s run of Coriolanus, tickets were so scarce that people camped outside in sleeping bags in the hope of getting a day ticket for the show. Interviewing the director Josie Rourke, just before a live broadcast of the play, Emma Freud asked what could account for this surge of popular interest. Somewhat disingenuously, Rourke enthused about the modern parallels to be found in this story. It’s a tale about the power of public opinion, in which a great soldier is brought down by his failure to transition to the hand-pressing, baby-kissing world of popular politics. She suggested that the play spoke to modern sensibilities. It’s about an era of austerity, about class divisions between the people and those who rule them, and about the fact that the people notionally have a voice but realistically don’t feel they have any power to change their government.

This is all true, of course. There are plenty of very interesting parallels and, when I wrote about the Ralph Fiennes film some time ago, I thought about the way such a story might have played out nowadays, when a Twitter-storm can result in a public figure passing from national hero to loathed villain in the course of a few hours. Coriolanus, despite its Roman setting and the fact it was written by Shakespeare, throbs with contemporary resonance. But is that really why all these people were sleeping on the streets on freezing January nights? Let’s not be naïve. Rourke’s production is intelligent and gripping, but she has also pulled off a casting coup: her Martius (Coriolanus) is none other than Tom Hiddleston, and I’ll leave it to you to judge whether that tiny little detail might not be responsible for some of the hype.

And hype there is. Needless to say, it was impossible to get a ticket for the play itself and in the end I had to make do with a cinema broadcast. I know that some people, including Robbie, attended the broadcast live on 30 January but I was abroad at that time and so found myself at the Screen at RADA for a pre-recorded showing. I hadn’t tried one of these National Theatre Live screenings before, but I was incredibly impressed by it all: it’s a brilliant way to see the productions that everyone’s talking about (and which it’s therefore impossible to get into). It was also quite amusing to watch the audience’s uncertainty about how to behave. Were we at the cinema, or the theatre? My fellow RADA-goers decided, appropriately, to favour the theatre option and so (thank God) there was rapt attention throughout, somewhat awkward applause at the interval and more energetic applause at the curtain call. At the moment the play actually finished, however, there was dead silence: everyone was completely and utterly stunned.

Like Ralph Fiennes’s version (which I’ll be mentioning quite a lot, as it’s the only comparison I have), Rourke’s does away with the togas. Her cast are dressed in modern clothes with just a hint here and there of antique style – a necklace; a belt; the leather jerkins worn by the soldiers; and, of course, the swords. I’ve never been to the Donmar in the flesh, so hadn’t realised how tiny the stage is and how little scope there is for set dressing. The play takes place in what is effectively an empty concrete box, with the back wall painted red in the lower part, white in the upper, and smeared with angry graffiti (as you see at Pompeii). The spareness of the setting means that you are always focused on the actors, which actually works incredibly well: in such a small space, every scrap of emotion counts. The only thing I didn’t really like was the fact that actors who aren’t currently ‘on stage’ take seats along the back wall. I found it distracting and thought it made the play feel slightly like a concert performance or a read-through.

But I was certainly impressed by the way that Rourke uses what few props she does have: small explosions during the siege of Corioles; rains of blood; and, on one occasion, a shower for Martius to rid himself of some of the gore. (This shower has, considering the casting, enjoyed a disproportionate amount of attention in some of the reviews.) For a simple production it’s actually remarkably bloody, sometimes with shocking effect. The final scene, about which I’ll say as little as possible to avoid spoiling it too much, is one of those shocking moments.

When I watched Ralph Fiennes’s film, the character of Menenius didn’t really register that much, beyond being one of the more sympathetic patricians. But here, in Rourke’s production, Menenius almost takes centre stage: he becomes the soul and conscience of the whole piece. This is due to an absolutely splendid performance by Mark Gatiss, who plays the part with amiable and slightly raffish charm. On occasion, however, that benign mask slips and you see something more complex underneath: a quick temper; a fierce loyalty to Martius; and an abiding frustration at his protege’s inability to do what he, Menenius, does so well: dissemble to the people. In fact, Menenius becomes the sympathetic way into the play: the touchstone by which we read Martius’ descent from patriotic glory into belligerent arrogance. The play opens with him defending Martius to the mob; and, for me, its emotional arc ends with Menenius’ retreat to Rome, shocked and wounded by Martius’ indifference. It’s this moment when we realise that Martius has gone too far: that his decisions have turned him onto a path from which there’s no return to Rome.

Menenius: Coriolanus

Menenius (Mark Gatiss): Coriolanus: Donmar Warehouse

For an audience, it’s a joy to have a performance like Gatiss’s; but it means that the rest of the cast are thrown into even sharper relief. Another of my favourite roles in this production was Elliot Levey as Brutus, one of the people’s tribunes. If we’re thinking of modern analogies for Coriolanus, then Brutus and his fellow tribune Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger) are local-government jobsworths who delight in red tape. They know they’re minnows; they know that the patricians look down on them; and so, with chips carved deep into shoulders, they’re out to do all they can, by fair means or foul, to prove that minnows can bring down a shark if they want. Levey is so good because he has an incredibly natural, understated delivery and beautiful comic timing; and he also uses his slim build and slightly hunched posture to offer a wonderful physical contrast to the tall and athletic Martius.  Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia is robustly possessive – managing to come close to Oedipal territory without ever quite crossing the line – but she’s sometimes a little shrill, which slightly undermines the magnificent dignity that she otherwise has.

I felt rather sorry for Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who just doesn’t have enough to do as Martius’ wife Virgilia. She is clearly a very gifted actress (I haven’t seen Borgen so I’m just going on what I saw here), but Virgilia as a character simply feels limp. She’s sidelined by Martius’ intense relationship with his mother and, just as she struggles to make a mark on her husband, she struggles to make a mark on the play. That’s Shakespeare’s fault, of course, but I still felt it was a shame that there wasn’t some way to give Sørensen a bit more presence. Even when the focus isn’t on her, she continues to act in the background, responding to what’s going on; and she and Gatiss were the only two whom I actually noticed doing this. I couldn’t help feeling she deserved a bit more meat to her role.

And so what about Tom Hiddleston? As you know, I’m a bit of a champion for him (although, as Heloise noted, if things carry on at this rate no one’ll be able to afford him for Lymond anyway), and I was interested to see how he’d get on with another Shakespeare play in the aftermath of his Henry IV and Henry V. His emotional intelligence continues to be riveting: one of the most remarkable moments of the play is when he’s confronted by Volumnia, Virgilia and his little son, who come to beg for the freedom of Rome. This hard warrior is so moved that he’s completely overcome with tears, which can’t be an easy thing to pull off night after night. And yet, this episode also illustrates the fact that Hiddleston still isn’t quite completely at ease with the language: immediately after this terrific silent emotive performance he has to make a speech to Volumnia, which sounded rather stilted in comparison. I did wonder whether perhaps he’d been so caught up in the emotion of the scene that he needed a bit of time to get back into the swing of things; and indeed for most of the play his delivery is much more fluid.

Obviously Hiddleston is considerably younger than Ralph Fiennes and thus a more appropriate age: after all, Martius is young and still trying to find his place. He has a very overpowering relationship with his mother, and he’s still being manoeuvred by people like Menenius, who think they know what’s best for him, but who actually have no idea of the man that he has become. Hiddleston’s Martius is arrogant and thoughtless, but it’s the arrogance of inexperience. This is the arrogance of a young man who’s been out on the field and taken cities single-handed and has to come home to answer to a bleating mob of plebs who think they deserve to have him grovel to them. Having been sheltered from the unwashed masses for his entire life, by his mother and Menenius, it’s no wonder that Martius has little understanding of how to deal with them.

Yet, for all that, Hiddleston injects a warmth and humanity to the role that Fiennes never quite managed: he has moments of humour and his relationship with Virgilia (what little we see of it) is convincing and affectionate. His interaction with his great rival Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) is also particularly interesting because Rourke emphasises the profound admiration between the two men, giving it an almost homoerotic intensity. Fraser makes a great Aufidius: earthy, instinctive and inscrutable; and the fight that he has with Martius in the ruins of Corioles is one of the best choreographed that I’ve seen on stage, starting out with swords and ending with the desperate struggle of muscle against sinew. The characters play off superbly against each other: the classic case of the hero and antihero who are two sides of a coin, and who respect each other so deeply that all their attention is fixed on the other – in admiration, emulation and competition.

I’m a firm believer that you can judge the overall quality of a play by how you feel afterwards. Even though I knew what was coming, I found the final scene deeply moving and ended up wandering back to the bus stop in a stupefied daze. Rourke’s production is powerful, raw and engaging: it takes a very underperformed text and brings out the timeless essence of the story. Hiddleston brings an energy and physical presence to the lead role that’s absolutely captivating, and Gatiss’s appealing Menenius gives the play an emotional anchor. Overall it’s really extremely good. (I know I’ve been a little critical at some points above, but I can’t let you think I’m a complete pushover.) Suffice it to say that, having seen this on film, I’m even more exasperated that there was no way for me to see it in the flesh. To any of you who did manage that, may I just say: I am immensely envious of you.

3 thoughts on “Coriolanus (1605/8): William Shakespeare

  1. Janet says:

    The 30th Jan performance marked our first outing to a NT Live event and I would definitely do it again, as we live just far enough from London for the late night journey home to be a real pain, especially with work the following day. It was good to see the cinema packed out, albeit mainly with people over 50 and young women. 😉 However, one lady we chatted to in the interval, and obviously a serious theatre goer, revealed that she was only there because she had failed to obtain tickets for the Donmar, and she wasn't enjoying it at all. She disliked “being told where to look” by the camera. Can't say that was a problem for me. The ending, although one knew it was coming, was brilliantly shocking and still haunts me! A word of praise too, for the child actor, who looked tired and stifled one small yawn (and who can blame him?) The manner in which he was given his cues was deft – a loving stroke of his hair, for example.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    So glad that you had the chance to see this too! I agree that 'being told where to look' really wasn't a problem: watching it on film means that you get to see all the intensity of expression that you'd completely miss if you were actually in the theatre (even though the Donmar is comparatively small). Wasn't the child sweet? It was a lovely idea to have him cover some of the scene changes by playing at mock battles with his wooden sword – emphasising the kind of upbringing that Martius himself must have had, and the painful contrast in the play between innocence and experience.

    A high proportion of young women in the theatre, Janet? Can't imagine for a moment why that might be… 😉

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