Coriolanus is probably one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, and this literary nerd’s favourite of his canon of work. It’s a play about power, politics and more importantly, the relationships we have and how they can shape our identity. It tells of a Rome in chaos from famine, with the citizens rioting in anger against Caius Martius, a brilliant, battle proud General who they blame for taking away their supplies of grain. Caius is contemptuous of the people, and later leads a raid on the Volscian city of Coriolies, meeting with his blood enemy in single combat, leader of the Volscian army, Tullus Aufidius. What ensues from this fateful meeting is a story of power, betrayal and the struggle that every public figure faces- the conflict between personal interest and public integrity.
I was ridiculously excited when this production was announced to have Tom Hiddleston in the leading role, as anybody who knows me well will tell you I’m a huge admirer of his work. I remember ringing the Donmar dead on 9am on June 25th, and seeing the entire three month run being sold out 20 minutes later, so imagine my joy and utter relief, then multiply that joy by double figures when I discover that one of my other great inspirations and firm stage favourite Hadley Fraser would be taking on the role of Aufidius. What followed, six months later on Saturday was one of the most incredible afternoons at the theatre I’ve ever experienced, and certainly the highlight of my 2013 theatre wise! What struck me when we entered the Donmar (I hadn’t been before) was how intimate it was. It only seats 250, around 3 sides of the stage in stalls and the same above in the Circle, and to my complete delight as the seating is bench style, I was sitting at the end of Row D on the left with no seats in front so I not only had an awesome view, but was sitting right next to the gangway where all of the actors and actresses made their entrances and exits for the majority of the time, so felt completely immersed in the action from beginning to end!
The set is tremendously minimal, a single ladder at the back of the stage, and a row of chairs against the back wall, where all the actors sat for the first half when not in a scene, and used rather cleverly in one of my favourite scenes, as I’ll explain later. When they needed to signify a change in scene, these would be moved by the actors in a kind of choreography that was almost like a ballet, again credit to the wonderful Jonathan Watkins who choreographed the Donmar’s production of The Machine, which I saw during Manchester’s International Festival this past July. There were many names familiar to me in the Creative Team here because of the latter production, so it was wonderful to see their work in action again here. Credit to Lucy Osborne for her wonderful design, it demonstrated that a production can still be tremendously powerful even with the ‘less is more’ approach, and really clever use of Video by Andrzej Goulding, Lighting by Mark Henderson and Sound by Emma Laxton.
Jonathan’s choreography during scene changes was accompanied by what some critics called ‘jarring techno’ music, but I personally quite liked it, it had shades that reminded me of Underworld’s score to the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, and was composed by Michael Bruce. The first thing the audience are greeted with is the young Martius (here played by Rudi Goodman) armed with paintbrush running onstage to mark the performance area, followed by members of the Ensemble who scrawl the words ‘Anon Plebis’ on the backdrop; clever graffiti if ever I saw it. With all these touches including brilliant costume design by Ed Parry, the overall effect was of a production with a familiar, kind of contemporary edge to it that still retained an essence of Ancient Rome within it. Leather vests for the men when battle ready and lots of muted, earthy type colours (browns, beiges, blacks, greens) were the order of the day.
Of course (almost inevitably I hear you cry!) I thought Tom was a complete and utter revelation in the titular role. One of the things I love most about Tom is his affinity with Shakespeare; I can’t think of any other way to describe it other than he just seems to live and breathe it from the moment he steps on stage, and there was no exception here. From the outset of his first entry where he asks the awaiting crowd who have just been baying for his blood, led here in what I found to be a gutsy, commanding performance by Rochenda Sandall:
‘What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues? That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?’
The audience are immediately greeted by a Coriolanus that is fierce, cold and proud, Tom brings this out in spades, particularly during the early scenes. He spits his hatred for the people out, strutting around the intimate space, commanding the attention of every single audience member. Personally, I likened the effect he had on me to as if he had a fist of steel, had placed it around my neck and wrenched my attention towards the stage, forbidding me to take my eyes from him and everybody else. Of course, not for one single moment did I want to. He captured my heart with every word he spoke and gesture he made.
My first of numerous favourite scenes of Tom’s was the siege on the Volscian city of Coriolies. While his army cower in fear behind the row of chairs (now at front of stage to act as trenches), and sparks blaze from above near the ladder, Tom climbs upon the middle chair and denounces them all, hate radiating from every inch of his speech and body language, for of course like any good actor should, he inhabits the moment, completely beside himself with rage:
‘You souls of geese that bear the shapes of men
How have you run from slaves that apes would beat!
Pluto and Hell, all hurt behind; backs red and faces pale,
With flight and agued fear! Mend and charge home, or by the fires of heaven I’ll leave the foe,
And make my wars on you.’
He runs for the ladder, and disappears from our view for a few moments. The next time we see him, he is soaked from head to torso in blood, and says in answer to the concerns of Titus Lartius and Cominius:
‘The blood I drop is rather physical than dangerous to me: to Aufidius thus I will appear and fight’And when they do fight shortly after this exchange, it is truly electric. Here I must first commend the work of Fight Director Richard Ryan, along with Tom and Hadley’s physicality and the hours of sheer effort the pair must have put in to make these fight scenes work as wonderfully as they did. Both of them open the scene trading fighting talk, circling the stage like a pair of lions ready to leap at one another. Hadley had my favourite line here:
‘And if I fly, Marcius,
Halloa me like a hare’ which he said with a kind of contemptuous sneer and a ‘bring it on, boy!’ glint in his eye, and the next moment one is being flipped over the shoulder of the other (this moment made me gasp in surprise and awe, well done, guys! :D) exchanging blows till Aufidius has to be forcibly dragged from the fighting, much to his disgust and frustration. Tom also had a signature move here; he spread his arms wide and beckoned his enemy to him with two fingers of each hand, jutting out his chin in defiance. It had: ‘here I am, come get me, I dare you’ written all over it.
If Tom’s Coriolanus is cold and contemptuous, nowhere is this more pronounced than his interactions with the people when trying to become Consul. He bought a wit and sarcasm to Coriolanus that I wasn’t expecting from him, and was instantly endeared to. Some of my favourite moments were when he was at his most biting, and his eyes and facial expressions really speak volumes, like when he says to Menenius:
‘Bid them wash their faces and keep their teeth clean’
My favourite speech from the entire play probably captures Coriolanus at his most furious, but what I loved most about the direction this production took this speech in was the scope it gave Tom to truly act. The speech in question is:
‘You common cry of curs,
Whose breath I hate, as reeks of rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.’
Instead of going down the angry raging route that this speech does work equally well with, Tom stripped it right back and instead gave it a quiet intensity and truth, giving weight to each word. His eyes really told the story here; I had goosebumps and had to catch my breath, as I did during the now infamous shower scene where a wet, semi naked Tom strode offstage holding my gaze for a wonderful moment 😉 I really loved the staging here as well, just prior to the last line of the speech, the lights have dropped, there is a pause and the light comes back on (now a spotlight) and Coriolanus is left alone to give the final line, with his mother waiting to emerge from the shadows.
To return briefly to the shower scene- it’s painfully beautiful viewing, with Coriolanus washing his wounds and gasping in pain. Well done Tom for making a moment that needs no words say so much.
When I first read the play, Coriolanus and Aufidius struck me as two parts of the same soul, neither being complete without the other, and Josie Rourke’s interpretation definitely plays with this dynamic. Hadley’s Aufidius, much like Tom’s Coriolanus is fiery, passionate and tenacious, and I loved every second of his performance. He brings sensitivity to the character that really helps you understand what drives him, I was given a new sense of empathy for the adversary that I haven’t found before. Pair him up with Tom, and what you got was something truly fascinating to watch- they both have great energy and chemistry and bring out the deeper nuances of the relationship between these brothers in arms with great sincerity, subtly (and at one point some might say not so subtly!) playing with potential homoerotic tensions that are constantly simmering just below the surface between the two. My favourite scene of Hadley’s was when the banished Coriolanus travels to Antium, Aufidius’s home and reveals himself. Aufidius eventually steals slowly around to Coriolanus’s back, kicks his feet apart so he can get in close and brandishes a knife in full view of everyone but his adversary, bringing it dangerously and teasingly slowly to his throat. All the while, he’s saying his lines into Tom’s ear, it’s almost like a lover’s embrace. If you watch Hadley closely then, focus on his eyes. There’s an intensity about them that manages to be this beautiful mix of quiet fury and torment. Also, kudos to Barbara Houseman (Vocal Coach) and Majella Hurley (Dialect Coach) for their work with Hadley- they’ve turned Aufidius into a Northerner and it really works. I did chuckle initially, more out of shock than anything else, but I became rather attached to it by the end of the play. It meant Hadley was able to bring out the colours in the language, and it brought out a new depth and intensity to many of my favourite speeches.
Mark Gatiss gave a wonderfully eloquent performance as Menenius. He reminded me of the fact that if you look closely, his character has a really rich personality, and embodies so many different emotions and traits. There’s wisdom, humour (again just like Tom, I feel Mark has a real gift for delivering sarcasm), pride, anger and eventually this great gaping emptiness when he comes to persuade Coriolanus away from his chosen course, and is rejected. The expression on Mark’s face and the way he delivered his final speech before striding off into darkness was spot on and broke my heart.
Peter DeJersey as Cominius was the performance I was most intrigued by, in that he made me sit up and take notice of a character that doesn’t usually make much of an impression on me. He gave the General a real sense of command and authority, but managed to marry this with a sense of vulnerability and humanity that I fell instantly in love with. Also, he has this great, booming voice that means his moments of anger are truly epic. 😉
Special mention to young Alfred Enoch who did a great job as Titus Lartius, he had a real confidence and I hope he’s destined for more great things in his post Harry Potter career!
Deborah Findlay was fabulous as Coriolanus’s overbearing mother Volumnia. She had the audience eating out of her palm throughout, whatever her emotion might be. She had a real commanding presence and intensity that I was drawn to, and her chemistry with Tom was truly special to watch. Coriolanus and his mother have a deeply complex and somewhat troubling relationship. The balance of power tips between the two, but always inevitably ends up in Volumnia’s favour. She’s cold, manipulative and driven and thus Coriolanus is resentful towards her, but even with all these troubling nuances, you can tell that she is a mother who loves her son.
Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger play Brutus and Sicinia, and I enjoyed both their performances, they bought wonderful moments of humour to otherwise extremely tense proceedings. I personally thought it was a stroke of genius to cast a woman in a male role (usually Sicinius), it just added another element of depth.
Birgitte Hjort Sørensen played the ‘gracious silence’ of the piece, Coriolanus’s wife, Virgilia. She is aptly described, as she doesn’t speak much or have a great deal to do, but that by no means is detrimental to what her character does do; I found her moments of passion and tenderness to be incredibly moving. Even in her gracious silence I found myself watching her, trying to gage what she was thinking or feeling.
The ending of this production is truly a spectacle: bloody, brutal and haunting. Aufidius bathes in the blood of his foe, keeping the feeling of brotherhood alive till the last with his final:
Yet he shall have a noble memory…. Assist’.
Asthe light faded upon the final scene, I sat there in a silence of complete awe, just trying to take it all in. More surreal however, is that moment following the bows when your Volscian hero walks past you face dripping in blood, shoots you a beaming smile, says ‘Hiya Kerrie!’ and just behind him is Tom Hiddleston, who witnesses the exchange and you catch the glint in his eye as he smiles. Oh happy fan 😀
I urge you all to try and catch the NTLive broadcast of this production in cinemas. We have it here in the UK on January 30th, and I’m looking forward to reliving the brilliance all over again.