Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s simplest plays. It’s all about a roman general, born into the ruling class, who is steered by his supporters towards the highest position in the Roman Empire, that of Consul.
But being a hero on the battlefield is not the same as being a political hero and his lack of guile is all too evident once he takes of his armour. Goaded by his fans and enemies alike, he makes one wrong move after another, until he is more or less impaled on his own pride.
The Donmar Warehouse is an interesting choice of venue for this tale of self-destruction which takes place in the grand arena of ancient Rome. It’s a tiny, claustrophobic area which more closely resembles a squash court than a stage. At the back, one stark wall is covered in graffiti to represent the voice of the people and a red square box painted on the floor outlines the public arena.
But Josie Rourke’s production is none the less rewarding for its lack of scenery. Tom Hiddleston’s compelling performance as the heroic, battle scarred Coriolanus quickly draws the audience into a visceral world where words and actions are only separated by the time it takes for Coriolanus to draw his sword from his scabbard.
Though the play is based on the life of the legendary Roman leader, Rourke takes a few liberties with history and choses to emphasise the power of women. Although a woman could never be elected to be a tribune one of the tribunes, Sicinius, is interpreted as a powerful female character ‘Sicinia’. Excellently played by Helen Schlesinger, she whips up the people into a fury against Coriolanus while her male counterpart Brutus (Elliot Levey) gives an amusing performance as the weaker conspirator.
The second in the female power-trio is his stunningly beautiful wife Virgilia, (Birgitte Sorensen) who weeps and rolls her eyes in horror at her husbands’ exploits. Coriolanus is surprisingly resistant to her charms, but he cannot resist the power of his ambitious mother, somewhat overplayed by Deborah Findlay, who leaves her boy in no doubt that he should be top dog. It is she, above all others who pushes him forward and then pleads with him to reverse the consequences. Both times she is successful, though with tragic results.
Though basically a tale of human weakness, there are plenty of humorous moments, which is just as well for there is no diversion from the main action. Coriolanus heads towards his own destruction with not so much as a soliloquy or a backward glance and it’s down to Mark Gatiss, playing the paternal Menenius, to deliver the odd morsel of philosophical humour. His theme is the human belly, and in particular whether or not it is full or empty. Shakespeare’s quips about the relationship between man and his stomach are perhaps even more relavent today than 400 years ago, and Gatiss ensures that they still get a laugh or two.
With almost no set or props, the small cast have a lot to deliver in terms of atmosphere. They are helped by Lucy Osborne’s costumes, whereby the dominant females wear modern interpretations of everyday Roman attire. Their sheath-like dresses bear a close resemblance to traditional Roman tunics, delivering history and power-dressing in one coup. The power-trio of mother, wife and political adversary are co-ordinated in masculine shades of blue, purple and silver, while the male side-characters are appear to be a motley crew with no common purpose, theme or style.
Between them they drive Coriolanus to his downfall which is shockingly graphic even by modern standards. Without giving too much away, one wonders whether it is right to ask actors to perform these feats, night after night. Recently James Macavoy pointed out that nearly all the actors in the recent version of Macbeth were all in some form of physiotherapy, and one suspects that Tom Hiddleston must be too.
Although Coriolanus is difficult character to understand, since we are given few insights into the workings of his mind, Hiddleston is compelling and is undoubtedly the star of the show with a performance that combines energy and sensitivity in equal measure.
At the end of the Live Screening the audience at the Tunbridge Wells Odeon clapped, though the actors could not see or hear, and though the cinema is a long way from the Donmar Warehouse.