sat 11/07/2020

Coriolanus, National Theatre at Home review – gritty 21st century update | reviews, news & interviews

Coriolanus, National Theatre at Home review – gritty 21st century update

Coriolanus, National Theatre at Home review – gritty 21st century update

The power of the mob still resonates in a production that speaks powerfully to our times

Gore-text: Hiddleston delivers a scornful, muscular performance in the title roleJohan Persson

An arrogant leader contemptuous of his people. Could there be a more perfect timing for Josie Rourke’s taut, visceral production of Coriolanus? As opinion polls reveal that following Cummings’ flit to Durham, trust in the government has nose-dived to 39%, it seems apt to revive a production that shows what happens when the apparent merits of one individual are trumped over accountability to voters. 

Yet it’s also, of course, a demonstration that one factor that defines a classic is its ability to reflect different tensions at different times. Tom Hiddleston’s scornful, muscular performance in the title role was conceived in 2013, just a couple of years after the Occupy Movement had shown what could happen when the 99% demanded accountability from one per cent. 

Shakespeare’s own text was written, most scholars believe, in the wake of the 1607 Midland Revolt. This saw thousands rioting to protest against wealthy landowners absorbing communal farms in the “enclosure of common land”. Today we live with the paradox that dissatisfaction with the elite has led to a government controlled by public-school populists. Yet the power of the mob still resonates and part of this play’s appeal is connected to the fact that we are all tantalised as to what chapter it might provoke next.

It’s a reflection of its Occupy roots that the aesthetic of this Donmar production is grittily urban. On Lucy Osborne’s stark set, the Roman forum is outlined by a blood-red square on the floor. Graffiti artists spray Latin slogans on the wall, while both the armour of the Romans and the outfits of the mob would not look out of place in a twenty-first century street riot.   

Mark Gatiss in CoriolanusThis brings significant oomph to a work which – despite being described by TS Eliot as superior to Hamlet ­– is one of Shakespeare’s more difficult tragedies to stage. This is not least because its central figure’s ruthless suppression of his vulnerability means he does not indulge in soliloquies. Another fascinating aspect of O’Rourke’s production, then, is to make us realise that there is a route into his interior life. Yet we witness it not through Coriolanus but through the pained love of those closest to him. 

His mother, Volumnia, would famously lead any pack of tiger mothers, and Deborah Findlay’s stunningly modulated interpretation of the role shows her transition from arch superiority to heartbroken horror as she realises the danger of her son’s intransigence. As his wife Virgilia, Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen demonstrates both quiet rage and empathetic dignity when she speaks. Beyond this the strong physical chemistry between her and Hiddleston’s Coriolanus pays testimony to his ability to inspire love, creating a potent subtext of the warmth that he never demonstrates in public.

Mark Gatiss’s excellent Menenius (pictured above) adds still another layer to this emotional portrait. Famously Gatiss drew strongly on Peter Mandelson for inspiration in his role as Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, and here he comfortably inhabits the role of another silver-tongued statesman. Yet beneath the wit as he tries, in vain, to coach Hiddleston’s stonily dignified Coriolanus to appeal to the people, we also see how devastated he is as he watches a friend with genuine merits destroying himself by refusing to play political games. 

When it comes to Coriolanus’s detractors, in a nice sleight of gender-blind casting, Sicinius, tribune of the people becomes Sicinia, played by an appropriately Machiavellian Helen Schlesinger. Together with fellow tribune, Brutus, played with urbane duplicity by the consistently superb Elliot Levey, she shows how close the tribunes are to contemporary political manipulators, as they bitch and calculate how to stir the world around them into flames.

Next to the complex emotional portrayal of the struggles that Coriolanus undergoes with his own people, the play’s other dominant conflict, between himself and the Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius, feels less nuanced. Hadley Fraser is an impressive presence as Aufidius, but even the playing up of the homosexual connection between the two men doesn’t make their relationship compelling. The magnetic dignity of Hiddleston’s performance is most interesting when shown against the motivations of those trying to save him. They reveal that unusually for Shakespeare, what’s most powerful in this play is what’s left unsaid, that the posturing and arrogant rhetoric are an expression of emotional wounds only recognised when it’s too late for them to heal. 

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