As with so many of London’s big Shakespeare productions these days, the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus sold out immediately. The NT Live widely sold-out live broadcast is fast becoming the only way to see these shows without pricey memberships or the dedication (and time!) to camp outside for day tickets. This winter, London’s big three – Richard II, Coriolanus and King Lear – have received universal critical admiration and incredible interest from those accessing Shakespeare through their favourite screen actors. It’s amazing that 400-year old plays are being gobbled-up with a ferocity usually reserved for headline music acts.
The Donmar is a small venue for the scale of Coriolanus, but by stripping it back and focusing largely on the character interplay this is an intimate and intense production. It takes place somewhere between ancient Rome and a stark urban setting, all grim brick and graffiti. The flooring resembles a boxing ring echoing the various bouts within the play as Coriolanus battles with his enemies. This version has set aside the usual pomp and ceremony, focusing on the nature of man unable to reconcile his honourable nature with the reality of what he’s fighting for.
This is a very good production, but it didn’t start well. The first act had too many stunts which seem out of kilter with the rest – these overblown scenes were somehow at odds with the tight concentration on individual human natures. It’s a big stagey beginning with lots of noise and digital projection creating the impression of a siege in process. This meant the dialogue was muffled and confusing for anyone who hadn’t seen it before. Maybe it was the cinema relay but that doesn’t account for the terrible digital music between scenes. Disappointingly, the small cast means you never really get a proper sense of the ‘the people’ and the threat their will poses to the men in charge. It seemed a little unlikely that a mob of 3 could run this Coriolanus out of town.
Tom Hiddleston is unsurprisingly excellent as the man raised always to be a soldier, driven by his militaristic mother who’d rather have eleven sons die in battle than have one survive dishonourably. Despite his manly aspect, he repeatedly bends to his mother’s wishes with disastrous consequences. In an early scene, his face is drenched in the blood of his victims as he glories in his success; the audience is left in no doubt that he is half warrior, half monster. Understandably he is unable to play the supplicant politician and Hiddleston’s Coriolanus switches effortlessly from insincere cajoling to terrifying rants of loathing for the people he protected. Often actors in this role are a little older, but his youth works brilliantly, playing on Hiddleston’s earlier screen role as celebrated warrior-King, Henry V – had Henry lived, would he have developed into Coriolanus?
In exile he again becomes the noble warrior, inspiring his men to a string of victories and existing only for revenge. In the final act, he flips again from coldly rejecting the entreaties of his friends, a touching scene with Mark Gatiss as Menenius, before a tensely emotional confrontation with his family that has shocking consequences in the play’s final moments. Like Richard II, Coriolanus was destined to be one thing, but his actions make it impossible to be sympathetic to his flaws. He rarely soliloquises and makes little excuse for himself. The whole cast is pretty good, although Birgitte Holt Sorensen is wasted as Virgilia who has about three lines, but a stand-out performance of considerable balance from Hiddleston as the mercurial protagonist dominates every scene.
Seeing it in the cinema is no bad option, what you lose in physical proximity to the actors, you gain in terms of close-up. Minor niggles on this one aside, two of the big Shakespeare’s and their leading men have hit the mark, we’ll see whether Lear can do the same in a few weeks…