Achamber production of Coriolanus? It sounds a contradiction in terms. But, as the programme points out, Shakespeare’s epic Roman play was probably first staged in the small-scale Blackfriars theatre. Josie Rourke also uses the Donmar’s intimacy to come up with a fast, witty, intelligent production that in Tom Hiddleston boasts a fine Coriolanus. Even if I have a few niggles, this is a thoroughly good evening.
The first thing one notices is how ingeniously Rourke uses the space. Roman discontent is quickly evoked through graffiti-sprayed walls demanding: “Grain at our own price.”
The often-confusing battle-scenes at Corioli are brilliantly done through a simple deployment of chairs, ladders and descending fireballs. And, when the arrogant warrior-hero reluctantly stands for the consulship, we see the citizens marking red ballot slips which are later torn to shreds as the verdict is revoked. All this shows the world of the play being suggested with inventive economy.
Comprehension is also total: anyone unfamiliar with the play would quickly grasp that a mother-dominated military hero is in conflict with a grievance-filled populace. But cutting of the text also thins the play’s texture.
As a tiny example, a speech by one of the tribunes describing the people initially turning out to cheer the conquering hero is reduced to a soundbite. That not only means we lose vivid images such as “ridges horsed with variable complexions”. What we also lose is the extent of the public appetite for military success and the rancour of the tribunes towards the abrasive hero.
If a price is paid for bringing the play down to well under three hours, there are rich compensations. And what is good about Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is that he conveys the hero’s complexity.
We are reminded this is a man who rejects bribes and whose first thought, after a bloody battle, is for a man who gave him shelter. Yet Hiddleston also embodies the character’s reckless impetuosity and political intransigence: he handles wonderfully the tirade in the senate against the people and their tribunes and leaves his fellow patricians shaking their heads in despair at his stunning naivety.
Whether Coriolanus qualifies as a tragic hero is open to debate; but Hiddleston gives us a man ultimately destroyed by his own headlong nature. He is also the victim of idolisation by his militaristic mother; and Deborah Findlay provides a vividly rounded portrait of Volumnia as a woman whose attitude to her son is a mix of hero worship and exasperation.
In a piece of luxury casting, we also have Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as Coriolanus’s wife who, in the scene where the women beg him not to destroy Rome, makes unusual use of her sensuous powers.
I was less persuaded by the idea of making the Volscians plain-speaking north country folk and Hadley Fraser as Aufidius slightly overplays the palpable homoerotic bond he has with Coriolanus: it’s all there in the text and I see Aufidius, even when the hero changes sides, retaining a guarded watchfulness.
But, on the credit side, Mark Gatiss is excellent as Menenius, the “humorous patrician,” and the production’s many virtues far outweigh its vices.
Above all, it reminded me of the play’s strange echoes and reverberations: Coriolanus first kneels in obeisance to his mother and later watches her bend a suppliant knee to him and the word “traitor”, hurled at him first by the tribunes and then by Aufidius, ignites his fury.
A production that makes you attentive to such Shakespearean details is clearly a very good one and is well worth catching when it’s broadcast on NT Live on 30 January.
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