It is not often that one reviews a play one saw six years ago, but with the forthcoming National Theatre At Home streaming of the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus, right now seems a strangely appropriate time to recall one of the best nights of theatre of my life.
I have written this review based on the impressions I retain and the notes I made at the time, so it will be interesting to see how differently I feel (and what I got wrong!) when I watch the broadcast. It is somewhat longer than a standard review but there is simply more to write about.
To begin with, one cannot write about this production without recalling the enormous global interest surrounding it at the time. Tickets sold out almost immediately for two reasons:
- The casting of Tom Hiddleston, one of the biggest film stars on the planet thanks principally to his role as Loki in three Marvel blockbuster films in as many years, creating a huge demand for tickets right around the globe.
- The Donmar’s seating capacity of 251.
You can gain an idea of Mr Hiddleston in his “imperial phase” by watching this video where he addressed six and half thousand people at the 2013 Comic-Con a few months before the play opened.
On the night we attended the play, Damian Lewis, Helen McCrory and Sir Kenneth Branagh were in the audience. Little wonder that I could have sold our three fifteen pound tickets online for an amount in excess of fifteen hundred pounds!
“His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for’s power to thunder.”
Coriolanus, my favourite Shakespeare play, tells the story (400-year-old spoiler warnings!) of Caius Martius, later given the honorific Coriolanus, an invincible Roman general, whose feats on the battlefield against their enemies, the Volscians, lead him, on his return to Rome and at the behest of his domineering mother, to unwillingly become a consul.
His open contempt for the common people, plus the machinations of certain tribunes, sees him condemned as a traitor and banished from Rome. Incandescent with fury, he rages at his countrymen – “thus I turn my back: there is a world elsewhere.” – and exits the city gates to forthwith join his arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius, leader of the Volscians. Under Coriolanus’ generalship they proceed to annihilate Rome’s armies until Rome itself lies at their mercy, and, in desperation, Coriolanus’ former friends and family are sent out to beg for the city’s salvation.
“Faith, there have been many great men that have flattered the
people, who ne’er loved them”
For me, Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s great, flawed characters, and in the same rank as Falstaff. He is strong, honest, incorruptible, brave to the point of insanity, an almost superhuman warrior and Rome’s hero. Unfortunately, he is also a humourless, militaristic fascist.
Typically, fascistic characters are portrayed as corrupt men posturing as the people’s champion, or ‘strong’ men instilling fear but craving admiration. Shakespeare’s genius is to make Coriolanus the polar opposite – an honest, upright man so constitutionally incapable of dissembling that he cannot help openly expressing his loathing of the plebeians and despising of their democratic ideals.
He is indifferent to both their opinion and adoration – or their suffering or welfare. Shakespeare makes Coriolanus’ arrogant belief in an innate right to command the thing which keeps Rome safe, and his unfailing honesty the thing that brings about tragedy – his faults are his virtues and his virtues prove his faults.
So how did Mr Hiddleston do?
On the evening we attended, he was a little underpowered at the start, the lines delivered well but not quite landing, but as the play progressed he got better and better, putting in a very good performance for the whole of the second half – an energetic, intelligent interpretation of the role. I had seen two previous productions of Coriolanus – one beautifully stylish with a good, if self-indulgent, performance by Steven Berkoff, and a visually striking one by the Almeida at the old Gainsborough Studios starring Ralph Fiennes. While comparisons between productions are unfair, Mr Hiddleston’s Coriolanus was certainly the equal of these two.
The presence of a global star inevitably overshadowed a very good cast, and there is not enough space here to do them all justice. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, of Borgen fame, was vivid in the somewhat thankless role of Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, while Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger nicely played the scheming tribunes, Brutus and the gender-swapped Sicinia.
The always excellent Peter De Jersey gave a cleverly understated performance as the put-upon Roman general Cominius – always a joy to hear such beautiful diction on a stage. Mark Gatiss was excellent from start to finish with his Menenius, the peace-making senator, bringing a freshness to a role often played by an older actor, and providing both wittily-delivered lines and, at the end, a rather moving plea to his old friend, Martius.
It’s easy to forget that much of the buzz for this Donmar production also surrounded musical star Hadley Fraser, who played the Volsci general Tullus Aufidius. An astonishing, chameleon of an actor, he gave us a brilliantly portrayed, rough, tough, no-nonsense Aufidius with a Yorkshire accent, which both contrasted with and mirrored the more refined but no less militaristic Martius, and their scenes together crackled with a dangerous energy – you didn’t know if they were going to kiss or kill each other.
On the night we were present, the big sword fight between Martius and Aufidius saw Mr Hiddleston’s sword (if I recall correctly) break and the blade go flying off, leaving him weaponless. Quick as a flash, Hadley Fraser discarded his own sword and the two embarked on an impromptu wrestling match. So deftly was it done, I had thought it part of the fight choreography! You can watch Mr Hiddleston talk about this very incident in this video, around six minutes in.
Finally, we come to Martius’ mother, Volumnia, played by Deborah Findlay. She is the woman who, through the inner furnace of her own ambitions, forges her son into an invincible fighting machine. The scenes between these two almost monstrous characters are gold – the unflinching general whom not even Rome herself can command, bending to the will of his even more indomitable mother, and it is this mother-son relationship that runs through the play like a rod of burning iron. While
I thought Findlay, like Mr Hiddleston, slightly underpowered early on in the play, by the end of it she was positively incinerating. The final scene between the two not only produced audible weeping from many in the audience but Mr Hiddleston and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen were in real tears. This is a production chock-full of memorable performances but in this scene Deborah Findlay annihilates you.
Of course, no production is perfect. The decision to seat all cast members not present in a scene on chairs upstage felt odd, while those scenes with riots or soldiers contained too much interpersonal thumping and shout-speaking. The grinding soundtrack, liked by my companions, nevertheless felt, to me, jarring for a history play.
However, these were minor quibbles and director Josie Rourke rightly earned praise for a sharp, pacy, intelligent production. Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s second-longest play after Hamlet, and, consequently, was significantly cut for this Donmar run, but despite losing many good lines, the play suffers little and Josie Rourke kept the story cracking along.
Lucy Osborne‘s stark staging and Mark Henderson‘s lighting matched the starkness of Martius, while the battle scenes – always so hard to pull-off on a stage – were cleverly arranged, so as we watch Martius ascend a real ladder, other actors mime climbing on projected ladders – one of several impressive visuals from Video Designer Andrzej Goulding.
Even the spotlit shower scene, which felt on one level like just an excuse for Mr Hiddleston to appear topless, was not merely visually striking, with water droplets firing into the darkness like silver sparks, but showed Coriolanus’ painful accretion of scars. Praise also for the costumes, which not only looked marvellous but also reinforced the tone of the play.
It will be interesting to see how Coriolanus translates to an online viewing. In such an intimate theatre, this Donmar Coriolanus was almost a chamber piece – when an actor looked you in the eye, they really did look you in the eye – and this compression of space leads to a keener emotional intensity between actor and audience.
Watching Coriolanus on that January evening really did feel like event theatre, and that is the truth of all theatre – theatre is, and always shall be, a live, communal, unrepeatable, unique and magical event.
Coriolanus originally ran 6 December 2013 to 13 February 2014 at the Donmar Warehouse. As part of the National Theatre at Home schedule, it will screen for free on the National’s YouTube channel for one week from Thursday 4 June 2020.