Coriolanus – review by Carole Woddis.

The Donmar Warehouse have now staged two `Roman’ Shakespeares under Josie Rourke’s stewardship, the first, the all female Julius Caesar by Phillida Lloyd (a hit here and on Broadway) and now Rourke’s own take on Coriolanus, the Roman general who could not stoop to flatter the public and who pays the highest price for his `arrogance’.  Both bear the mark of radical rethinking as due to plays that debate and explore potential revolution; and both resort to modern  dress to highlight topical resonances.  Rourke’s Coriolanus may not quite have the stamp of Ralph Fiennes’s intensely bloody 2012 Balkans film version but it leaves you in no doubt as to its present day English parallels with projected and scrawled graffiti, hoodies and a Brechtian style of staging which places actors as bystanders, ranged along the back wall when not actually speaking.

In an age when politicians seem only too willing to compromise their principles Coriolanus has much to say about opportunism, public fickleness and the deviousness of political `deputies’ (the tribunes).  The play, Coriolanus, was ever ambivalent on where the playwright’s sympathies actually lie: with the unyielding warrior autocrat or gullible plebeians?

That Rourke’s production  produces a matinee-like howl of approval for Tom Hiddleston’s eponymous hero at the end says a good deal about the momentum of Rourke’s production and particularly for the authority – and classical good looks – Hiddleston brings to the  role.  It also says something about the celebrity tendency, as in a dramatic theatrical coup, Hiddleston undergoes the most gruesomely realistic of comeuppances any Shakespearean lead has had to suffer at the Donmar since Simon Russell Beale’s unhappy demise at the end of a hot poker in Edward II.

Rourke’s production is always coherent, unfussy, pacey and true to its anti-romanticism but there is no mistaking its ultimate swing towards the warrior soldier.

Hiddleston, an actor who put his stamp on Henry V in the BBC’s Hollow Crown series by virtue of the passion and sensitivity he brought to the role does something similar here.  He’s no Serbian fighting war machine as Fiennes cinematic counterpart suggests.  There is a vulnerability even when at his most martial and victorious.

Rourke surrounds Hiddleston with a mixture of accents – from Hadley Fraser’s dangerous but exciting Brum-accented Aufidius (Coriolanus’s Volscian sworn enemy) to the powerfully spoken elder Senators of Mark Gatiss and Peter De Jersey’s Menenius and Cominius respectively, to the gruffer, street inflected voices of the young ensemble doubling as soldiers, Citizens, rabble-rousers and wives.

As Coriolanus’s ambitious mother, Volumnia, a woman for whom the definition of honour can only be measured in battle scars, Deborah Findlay cuts an imposing, rightly terrifying figure who is, yet, not afraid to plead when necessity warrants it.

Coriolanus plays enticingly, as does Julius Caesar, with the downfall of rulers due to  fluctuating political fortunes and their own personal flaws, none more so than Coriolanus.  Rourke’s production suggests a good man brought down by his upbringing, bad timing, professional incompatibility (the soldier should never have been appointed Consul and had to turn Politician) and masculine envy.

A tragedy, in another interpretation the outcome might be seen very differently, as a failure of will, political nous, or tellingly, as a battle between Left and Right political ideologies.  As always with Shakespeare, interpretation and context is all.

If you can’t catch Coriolanus in situ, catch it when it is broadcast on Jan 30 as part of NT Live.

Coriolanus is at the Donmar Warehouse to Feb 8, 2014: see www.donmarwarehouse.com

Carole Woddis © Dec 2013.