Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse

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You want symbolism? As the stage lights go up at the Donmar’s production of Coriolanus we see a ladder extending right up to the flies and a wall graffiti’d with political protests. It’s a concise piece of staging; the ladder is the representation of the heroic exploits of the Roman hero, whose extraordinary valour leads him to scale the walls of Corioli, which his forces then subdue. It is his path to glory, but the wall covered in slogans is precisely the symbol of what undoes him; Coriolanus wants the consulship after his victory but simply can’t bring himself to disguise his contempt for the populace. Banished from Rome, he joins forces with his enemy Aufidius and his Volscians and marches on the capital…

The absolute unity of action in Coriolanus allows for a pretty pacy few hours, and there’s a lot riding on the lead role and his relationships with the crowd, with his enemy Aufidius and with his mother Volumnia. Tom Hiddleston bestrode the stage in a muscular way (much to the delight of his many fans in the house), but his speeches occasionally mistook rhythm for clarity. In contrast, Mark Gatiss’s sinuous delivery was one of the best things in the play; his laconic Menenius rather stole the show. The battle scenes outside the walls of Corioli came off well, as did the city politics of Rome, where the ensemble was strong. Coriolanus’s loathing of the populace and of himself for having to kowtow for their votes had a savagely comic edge.  This was, by the way, a production that took Coriolanus’s heroism at face value; there was no sense of the tyrant he might have become, and the plotting by the tribunes Brutus (Elliot Levey) and Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger) was presented more or less as cynical politicking. Although the personal, rather than tribal, tussle for martial glory between Coriolanus and his Volscian foe Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) was clear, I didn’t feel the production made the case for the sudden homosexual subtext when Aufidius gave him a lingering kiss.

In his great Crispin’s Day speech Henry V exhorts his soldiers to strip their sleeves and show their scars in the future, because they will be marks of collective endeavour and collective memory. Volumnia, like a Spartan matron, proudly enumerates her son’s twenty-five scars as literal marks of valour, but unlike Henry V’s, Coriolanus’s scars are individually sought and won. Things begin to unravel, then, when Coriolanus refuses to display his wounds to the populace. It’s an episode that doesn’t appear in Plutarch, but  Shakespeare makes wounds the manifestation of Coriolanus’s fatal pride. Because he considers it vulgar to put them on show to the people, they don’t warm to him, which sets in train the events that end in his banishment. His injuries can only be viewed privately, so when we see Hiddleston cleansing his body of blood and wincing in acute pain the audience turns voyeur. I suspect this is deliberately done, given the casting – after all, this is a Hollywood action hero’s ripped torso on display. There was some clever staging here: the long jet of water on Coriolanus’s body as he washes his wounds created a visual and thematic link between the ladder of his siege triumphs and the iron chain that strings him up at the end.

The key relationship, of course, is Coriolanus and his mother. Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia was masterful (I use the word advisedly), but the pairing itself lacked the tense co-dependence you might want. Coriolanus is in thrall to his mother, sure, but in their dialogues Hiddleston seemed overcome with lassitude. That infected the final scenes, when Volumnia, Virgilia his wife (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and Valeria (Jacqueline Boatswain) beg the exiled Coriolanus to abandon his vengeful conquest of Rome. Everything is riding on what ought to be an agonising intercession scene, and having enjoyed the production up till then, I felt that this is where it disappointed. Coriolanus should be visibly convulsed by the fact that he is going to lose either way. He’s already failed as a politician, and now he’s going to fail as a Roman soldier, whether he decides to invade his home city or not. The great fighting man is unmanned not by another warrior but by his mother; not by the sword but by rhetoric.

Director Josie Rourke cut the scenes of civic reaction to the women’s triumph, which meant that the sense of Roman ritual and display – so crucial to this piece – was also lost. Equally, Coriolanus’s death at the hands of Aufidius and his men felt less like popular violence and more like a private assassination. It could be that Rourke wanted to deny Coriolanus any heroism at the last moment, but the ending felt slightly cut short.

This is  tight, intelligent production that’s seriously worth seeing, though judging by the hundreds of fans outside the Donmar waiting for Hiddleston, tickets may now be in short supply. Apparently MTV viewers have just voted him sexiest man in the world. Vox populi…

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1 Comment

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One response to “Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse

  1. I have seen this twice now and whilst in agreement that Mark Gatiss gave clarity to his speeches at times his performance was just a tad understated and this impacted on the emotional force of the final rejection scene, Having read the play twice now I do find many of Coriolanus’s speeches are harder to comprehend and as a result Tom had the more difficult task. Yes there was the odd occasion when the clarity might have been better but overall he handled the more substantial part with ease. I found Coriolanus’s balance of humour/drama/anger and quiet resolution worked well for me and added to the pacing of the play. I felt the shower scene helped the audience understand the reality of his pain and pride and the wearing of the slightly see through muslin shift reinforced the humiliation of the invasion of privacy involved in the ritual. What I admired about Tom’s performance was his ability to provide dark, light and shades in between which made him feel more like a real person communicating as opposed to giving a performance

    Deborah Findlay was excellent but her performance was very strident at times and for me threatened the balance of some of the interactions. The second time I saw it her pleas at the end were much softer and the interaction as a result was far more moving and both actors conveyed considerable understanding and pain, But I admit to having a preference for quiet intensity as opposed to louder more aggressive performances which have a tendency to grate with me.

    Aufidius had some good moments but ultimately his performance got a bit lost in the northern accent which seemed at odds with everyone else. I do agree that the slightly over the top homoerotic infusion did appear to come out of the blue despite the references within the text.
    The tribunes certainly helped to bring into focus the politics within the interpretation of the play and it was certainly more interesting because of it.

    One thing seeing it twice did reinforce for me was that the staging at times meant you could not always see everyone’s facial reactions in specific interactions but were dependent on voice and body language to give you feed back. This was particularly true of the Coriolanus/Volumnia and to some degree the Coriolanus/Aufidius scenes and as a result the two nights felt very different, The second time I saw it the energy levels were much higher anyway and it all felt more emotionally charged.

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