False to My Nature: Coriolanus

Warning: We consider this play old enough to allow for ‘spoiling’ the ending, so if you don’t want to see these spoilers we advise you to stop reading now.

Would you have me, False to my nature? Rather say I play, The man I am.

If you are a bit of a Shakespeare geek or a Tom Hiddleston fan then you are probably aware that the Donmar Warehouse is putting on a run of Coriolanus. Perhaps one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, Coriolanus follows the downfall of a Roman general who succeeds at war but fails as a leader in a time of peace. It has a number of key themes including leadership and the nature of politics however, as is the case with most of Shakespeare’s writing it is possible to explore any number of other key issues such as the importance of family and femininity.

To be perfectly honest my dear Wanderers, this is not a play that I particularly knew well before attending this show. However, I have personally always found that there is something rather magical about Shakespeare. The language may sometimes appear archaic upon paper but when it is performed suddenly it becomes as clear and simple as modern English. I found that this quality of Shakespeare was further enhanced by the performance itself which was fresh, deliberately timeless and surprisingly humorous on several occasions. Keeping the era undefined with a mixture of costumes ranging from pseudo-roman, medieval and modern was an excellent nod to the enduring nature of the issues being explored. The bareness of the stage, the minimum use of props and the symbolism throughout the play, especially the use of the colour red, all served to focus the audience’s attention on the acting. And it was superb.

As you might expect of the title character, Coriolanus (Tom Hiddleston) dominates the play not only when he is on the stage but even when he is off it, he is still the primary focus of conversation and debate. Hiddleston is magnificent as the Roman general who proves his skills and courage upon the battlefield but is scathing in his disregard for the ordinary people and the concept of democracy itself. Hiddleston provides us with a Coriolanus who is multi-faceted, believable and dare I say even sympathetic. He shifts with ease from arrogant sarcasm as he ‘begs’ for the votes of ordinary people to a raging vengefulness as he is cast out of Rome. Much has been said about the so-called ‘shower scene’ where Coriolanus washes off the blood of battle. Some critics are of the view that Josie Rouke is playing upon the sex appeal that Hiddleston as a Hollywood actor and internet darling brings to the stage. Others have argued that there is nothing sexual about the scene, it is poignant and laden with symbolism, that it is only when Coriolanus is alone he can allow himself to feel the pain of his battle wounds. I would be very much inclined to agree with the latter, it is a scene which makes you realise that for all the glorification of his deeds, Coriolanus is very much an isolated figure. We are granted another glimpse of this very human vulnerability towards the end of the play when Coriolanus agrees to call off the attack on Rome despite knowing it means his own execution. The tears in Coriolanus’s eyes even as he reassures his family of Rome’s safety makes the following the execution scene all the more brutal and shocking to watch.

Of course, one actor, no matter how brilliant, cannot make a play and all of the performances were excellent. Personally, after Hiddleston, I found the acting of the tribunes to be the most compelling. Brutus (Elliot Levey) and Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger) were fantastic as the manipulative and malicious duo who were determined to bring about Coriolanus’s downfall. The two worked together seamlessly, dropping a few words of poison here, stirring a bit of drama there and often seeming possessed of the same mind as they finished each other’s sentences and spoke at the same time. The two were also responsible for many of the lighter, more humorous points of the play and they were truly a joy to watch together whether they were gossiping, plotting or enjoying their brief few moments of victory.

Menenius (Mark Gatiss) was very much an Everyman figure often caught between two extremes trying (unsuccessfully) to be a voice of moderation to both Coriolanus and the tribunes. At times, he seemed weary and annoyed in turn at the political machinations of Brutis/Sicinia and at the blundering of Coriolanus. As Aufidius, (Hadley Fraser) was more than capable of holding his own against Coriolanus whether this was in a battle of wits or in the intensely realistic fight scenes that had the audience wincing in sympathy. The homoerotic undertones of the play were fully taken to the surface by the interactions between the two but for all of his apparent delight at having a soldier of Coriolanus’s calibre on his side, Aufidius proves himself as equally uncompromising and ruthless as his once rival when he executes the fallen general.

The only negative comment I feel I can make about this production is that Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay) and wife Virgilia (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) were somewhat underused. Previous versions may have focused on the mother-son relationship but this was not the case in this performance and with a rather compact running time of approximately two hours, 30 minutes it is understandable that Rouke had to cut down scenes somewhere. Overall, this is a stunning production with a truly memorable cast which will keep you on the edge of your seat and feeling somewhat unsettled afterwards. If you have not been fortunate enough to secure tickets to the live performance it may be possible to attend an alternative through National Theatre Live events (http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/ntlout5-coriolanus.) I might just be going for a second viewing myself.

I would give the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus a very rare five out of five for a breath-taking and thought-provoking evening.

Red Hamilton (is in awe of how actors can perform such a physically and emotionally straining play night after night.)

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