So this week, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I managed to see Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse by the simple expedient of queuing for returns. As if by magic, a ticket appeared, and you should work this miracle yourselves.
Let’s not kid around: this show is stripped down and raw, and really rather excellent. The Elizabethan stage didn’t possess much in the way of set, and this production is oddly classical in its approach with actors visible for the majority of the scenes, and props making do as set pieces. That’s not to say that the design is boring; far from it. Instead, it is interactive - with the actors, at least - and re-created anew each night through paint and light and bodily fluids. It is apt, because this is a play there the blood runs free and sluices through the streets. Coriolanus is not a show suitable for those with a weak stomach, or a fair heart.
The story is not one of Shakespeare’s famous ones, and may or may not be true. The soldier Coriolanus is thrown down by the people on the eve of his greatest triumph and vows revenge: sound familiar? It could be the story of any number if Roman heroes, and earlier ones as well. For me , it reminded me of Alcibiades, the great hero of the Athenian city state, who was exiled for becoming too powerful and swore vengeance. Coriolanus is a Roman soldier, not an Athenian one, but there are marked similarities. The power of the people still holds sway, and the part of Roman history the play is thought to reference is rife with demonstrations of that power as workers withdrew their work and their swords. Coriolanus, one of the nobles, has no love for the people and holds his honour dear. It is, as in so many Greek tragedies , his undoing.
Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus is a bit of an odd choice. I would have thought that he was a little too young to play the role, but he acquits himself with aplomb. The director clearly tried to use his youth and energy to their full potential in several visceral battle scenes, including one particularly lovely vertical one, and in having his family be young and vulnerable alongside him. The big moment all the girls in the audience seemed to be looking forward to - the shower scene - is less the gratuitous display of prettiness I’d expected (and worried about), and more a groaning, slow-motion breakdown after the battle. I appreciated the chance taken in doing something that unpretty, given how easy it would have been to fall into an audience-pleasing frothy moment.
Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia was a particular favourite of mine, funny and acerbic and convincingly maternal, which doesn’t always happen in Shakespeare mother figures. Her relationship with Coriolanus was a real highlight of the play, and his turn onwards her hand works well on a young man on our modern stage (and made me appreciate that an older casting would have made this relationship problematic in the extreme).
Mark Gatiss as Menenius was sublime, funny and touchingly broken in turn. His mannerisms had a real delicacy and deft that convincingly conveyed gravitas and humanity: he loves Coriolanus, for all his faults. His is the voice of the senior statesman, although we do have him as a Senator, he also plays the father-figure with the same hand.
Aufidius, too, is a young man’s role in this production, as violently visceral and earthy as Hiddleston’s eponymous hero. This Aufidius touches what he covets, and what he covets is the glory settled upon Coriolanus like a mantle. Now, this is the other part of what the fandom has been screaming about, and yes, there is a lot of touching and kissing. But I found it just as unnerving as I suspect Coriolanus found it, given the circumstances and what it conveys. There is no great love story here (or if there is , it has stolen a march on R&J on fucked up and twisted). Aufidius, when all is said and done, does what he must for his people, as Coriolanus does what he must for his honour.
I struggle with this play, and it is simply because Coriolanus is too much the classical hero for me to be able to bleed for him. He is as perfect and proud and vengeful as Achilles, and yet it is his humanity, trampled down but still present , which is his undoing. The energy of the play , then, feels odd for a modern stage, starting off high with a lot of physical acting and battles, and tapering off into the consequences of success and glory and vengeance. The end , when it comes, is inevitable and more an exhaled whimper than a triumphant bang: the characters know what is coming, and so do we.
Do try to see the show if you can, it really is a very interesting interpretation with an excellent cast and sterling direction.