Coriolanus is a strangely neglected and infrequently performed play, one without the speechifying and introspection that offer psychological insight into Shakespeare’s most popular protagonists. Yet, with its focus on the delusion of leadership, the importance of the mob and the brittle basis of populism, Coriolanus is truly a play for our times. A recent production starring Tom Bateman at the Sheffield Playhouse was truncated by the pandemic, so this is the perfect time to revisit the Donmar Warehouse’s extraordinary 2014 production showing this week via National Theatre at Home and starring Tom Hiddleston.
Six years on, this remains one of the most viscerally impressive productions of the last decade, a fascinating dissection of power, class and the enduring battle between military conquest and political protectionism that characterise Shakespeare’s Roman plays. Wars and conflicts occur across Shakespeare’s plays and, within the Histories especially, this involves many characters whose motivations and purpose in the story vary considerably as families, regions and nations contend for tangible forms of power.
In these plays, Shakespeare is particularly interested in the formation and decline of the warrior as an archetype, charting the dehumanisation process that rids the individual of personal weaknesses and emotion, transforming them into great and celebrated military leaders. The Henriad trilogy is the best example of this, following the reformation of Prince Hal from tavern-dwelling layabout to the principled and invincible monarch-conqueror. There are plenty of moments of hesitation, uncertainty and fragility along the way, but the steel that Henry V displays on the battlefield and in the rejection of his former companions denote the completion of his metamorphoses from fallible human prince to an idealised personification of glorious war.
Equally interesting is the post-war process in which the feted Hero-Warrior, unable to sustain their god-like form, must return to society – something Henry V escapes by dying unceremoniously in Shakespeare’s afterword. Now irreversibly changed or damaged by combat, the Hero-Warrior sets in motion a train of events that lead disastrously to their own destruction. Caius Martius who earns the moniker Coriolanus from his bloodthirsty endeavours takes this path through the play, the self-destruction of a hero unwilling to accept the confines of a society that built him and this becomes the major driver of Josie Rourke’s outstanding production.
Characteristics of the Hero-Warrior
Heroism is an intangible characteristic in many ways, requiring personality traits including decency, fairness, courage and bravery as well as deeds to demonstrate the hero’s prowess. There are several characters who begin one of Shakespeare’s plays already in the position of celebrated military hero – Coriolanus, Macbeth and Antony – all of whom return from garlanded battle with honours and political recognition, the discussion of which dominates the early section of these plays. Yet the very characteristic that made them also becomes their fatal flaw and pursuing it in peacetime takes them on a path to inevitable destruction and death.
In the Donmar’s Coriolanus, the audience is given a vivid picture of the protagonist’s battlefield strengths in an opening section where he descries the cowardice of his compatriots hiding in trenches rather than running into battle. He goes on to take the city of Corioli singlehanded, returning drenched in blood that runs into his eyes, covering his face and upper body entirely – a beautifully staged moment from Rourke and designer Lucy Osborne. Instantly we know that this is a man apart from others, one with superior fighting skills, incredible audacity and, crucially, an excess of bloodlust that make him part hero part madman.
What unfolds in the rest of the play suggests how fatally flawed this Hero-Warrior is, bred for the simplicity of soldiering, the life and death fundamentality of it all, and entirely unfitted for the grey, oleaginous world of politics. In Hiddleston’s remarkable performance, we see the effect of hubris and how clearly the very thing that made Coriolanus also breaks him – the love of his mother Volumnia. The intensity of their relationship, visible on his return to Rome is given physical form in the tenderness of the greeting between Hiddleston and Deborah Findlay, exceeding that for his wife and son. His reliance on her guidance is vital to understanding the path Coriolanus takes, his unyielding refusal to be other than what she made him even when the great prize of political office and power are offered. By the same extension, when he does finally succumb to her entreaties in the penultimate scene of this production and shows mercy to his former home, he places his mother above himself – it proves his undoing.
Shakespeare’s other Hero-Warriors experience a similar trajectory and while their motivation and downfall is conceived differently, both Macbeth and Antony suffer a rapid fall from grace, tumbling from invincible military hero supporting the dynastic sustenance of the state to its most pressing enemy. Macbeth’s ambitious belief in fate becomes his fatal flaw which in the early part of the play summons his courage to take the Kingship he craves, while that self-same fate becomes a poisoned chalice as he tries to outmanoeuvre the destiny earmarked for him at the start of the play.
Antony, likewise, is in a solid position at the start of Antony and Cleopatra holding a third of the Roman Empire in his grasp while living with the woman he adores. Antony’s fatal flaw – lust – helps to build his powerbase before the play begins uniting two countries in mutual support, but as his strategic abilities are increasingly clouded by his attachment to Egypt, he foreshadows the series of military disasters that lead to his his military capitulation and death. All of these men experience the decline of the Hero-Warrior image during the course of the play, a status and easiness of mind held at the start which they will never know again.
The Military-Political Clash
One of the core themes of Coriolanus is the uneasy alliance between military action and the democratic process, an idea that recurs in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. States are reliant on the bravado of commanders to conquer territories and occupy land, but attempts to translate battlefield honours into consolidated political roles in peacetime society often in the role of Consul or Tribune, are treated with suspicion by the career politicians that pack the Senate. Julius Caesar is the best example of this as the predominantly civilian conspirators plot to destroy their overmighty colleague, the unspoken threat of the violence his legions could unleash on the city a driving force in his assassination and the recruitment of veteran Brutus to their cause.
In Coriolanus the sniping role of Tribunes Sicinia and Brutus played by Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levy starkly exemplifies that division, adding a class angle between the rulers and the ruled as they both represent and manipulate the voice of the people, using political tactics to dispense with the military man they personal despise. The status of Hero-Warrior counts for remarkably little in the political arena, and Coriolanus struggles to accept the legitimacy of a government that requires the frequent sacrifice of his blood to protect it but not his person. And while the Hydra-like work of the Tribunes (a reference Shakespeare returns to throughout the play) makes them and their reasoning entirely unsympathetic, Coriolanus’s own disdain for democratic process and the people become equally problematic for him.
Dismissive of the facile rituals of political conduct, Hiddleston’s sneering warrior mocks the ceremony of installation into the Consular office, pulling at the robe and laurel crown and refusing to parade his war wounds in order to beg for ‘voices’. Encouraged by his mother to comply with conventions, Hiddleston shows the frustration of the solider forced to debase himself as he courts a popularity he believes should be his by right and contends with his own straightforward honesty (brutal though it is). The result is a bristling tension in this production as Coriolanus struggles to flatter the citizens he can barely hide his contempt for as the audience anticipates confrontation. Within the play there is a fundamental clash between the two mutually dependent arms of the state that find each other’s rituals and personnel distasteful, a conflict, Shakespeare suggests in the plays set later that is never entirely resolved.
A Hard-Edged Vulnerability
The early scenes of the play are full of machismo as battles are fought and the posturing of victory informs the audience’s image of Coriolanus as an unyielding and statuesque figure. Hiddleston’s entrance sets the tone entirely as he captures both the commanding figure and personal charisma of a solider whose exploits are widely admired. It is a very physical performance, his posture set in rigid military bearing with shoulders back and head held high even when lurking at the back of the stage when’s he out of the scene, creating a fearsome impression, using his posture and surety of step to dominate the stage. There is real danger in Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, a no man’s land between rational, strategic thinking and a psychotic madness that erupts into violence as he fights the Volscian’s led by Hadley Fraser. The menace and physical strength Hiddleston exudes ideally situates the fears of the political class as his return to Rome provokes suspicion and jeopardy for the city.
And while it would be easy to play him as a blustering bully or maniac, what made Hiddleston’s performance so memorable is the thread of vulnerability that runs throughout his characterisation, generating a degree of compassion for the ill-fated general. It is an interpretation that gets between the lines of Shakespeare’s text and colours-in some of the emotional and psychological substance absent from a play with no great speeches or underlying lyricism – at least Macbeth and Antony had soliloquies in which they could unpack their minds to the viewer and themselves.
Hiddleston is a very subtle actor on stage, eschewing expansive expressions or gestures in favour of almost imperceptible flickers of feeling that provide a far richer and deeper experience, particularly well suited to the supposed impassivity of Coriolanus. The emotion exudes from within the character, registering largely in the actor’s eyes as they convey the effect of betrayal to the audience. We see a light die in him as the hurts and taunts dispel any ideas he may have had of his homecoming, while the painful process of dressing-up to beg for votes is clearly an embarrassing affront to the Hero-Warrior ego.
But it is the penultimate scene where these vulnerabilities are so movingly represented, broken down by his mother’s appeal for mercy, Hiddleston brings great clarity to the struggle within Coriolanus between the right tactical response to ensure his victory over Rome as well as ensuring the faith of his new-found comrades, and surrendering the advantage to guarantee the life of his own family. Coriolanus must choose between the two sides of himself, Caius Martius and Coriolanus, the soldier and the politician, knowing the latter ensures his own death, a dilemma that is full of agony in this meaningful performance.
The Donmar’s production of Coriolanus is one of the great NT Live recordings, capturing the intimacy of the space and the intensity of the production. The play may lack the grand tragedy of Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra but this production makes a fine case for its value as a study of the declining Hero-Warrior and its relevance to our current political climate. The impasse between deluded politicians shoring up their own span of power and those who lack the temperament for government but can accomplish great deeds is the essence of Coriolanus – Shakespeare shows us it was ever thus.