The last time I saw Coriolanus on stage was at Gainsborough studios in 2000. I might not remember much about the production, but one thing impossible to forget was the space. The film studios had been turned into a theatrical space just before their demolition, creating a vast stage in front of a vast auditorium. It’s interesting that my second Coriolanus experience is at the Donmar Warehouse, which is the definition of a small space with vast ambitions.
Intimacy has always been the Donmar’s focus: at the first scene of Coriolanus, a child enters the stage and draws a line on the floor. It could be a playground game but this is war and things take a different turn. Soon there is enough hustle and bustle to suggest civil unrest and bloody battles. (The fight between Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius is particularly forceful. In such a small space it certainly makes an impact: nothing like being a yard away from swords macheting in the air). Ultimately though, it all comes back to that first image and to close familial relationships. In a thrilling scene at the senate, the speeches make political points as much as personal ones, and it’s this uneasy combination that gives the play its drive.
Aesthetically, the production presents challenges. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the approach to the costume design. Much of the clothes seem to come from one All Saints collection or another. The result feels a little too calculated. Another interesting feature is a row of chairs almost permanently present on stage. At the beginning, this worked the same way a rehearsed reading does: actors were sitting at the chairs even if they were not in the scene. Initially this put me on edge but the idea developed into a sophisticated use of projections and props with many interesting applications. A bit like Transformers, but in ancient Rome.
Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is charismatic and able to combine warmth with a brutal edge. The soldier’s awkwardness is combined with a nervous restlessness, in some scenes we could almost tap in the confusion in his head. The imagery surrounding his character is distinct, though not necessarily subtle: his crown looks as made of thorns, his senator’s garments like the robes of Christ. And yes, there is a “shower” scene to make happy everyone who enjoyed the poster. But I was more interested in the scene where Coriolanus is pelted with what looks like raw meat. An unexpectedly savage action, it reinforces his status as a martyr.
Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia crackles with ambition that turns into devastation that turns into tenderness. She lives these emotions without contradiction or hesitation. Her commitment is both scary and moving.
Mark Gatiss has developed a nice undercurrent of melancholy for many of his roles. [But not all: the last time he was at the Donmar, he was wearing a uniquely extravagant wig, a comic (head)piece all by itself]. As Menenius, he projects grace with a hint of sadness. Even if no physical violence is involved, his treatment by Coriolanus emerges as particularly brutal, and Gatiss brings it home in tiny subtle ways.
Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius is virile with a nice sense of petulance and little self-doubt. Peter De Jersey’s Cominius shows unforced gravitas combined with intelligence and pathos. Elliot Levey’s Brutus and Helen Schlesinger’s Sicinia work partly as a comic duo and partly as a couple mad on love and power. It’s an interesting combination that mostly works.
Many haunting scenes stand out, not least the very last image. Josie Rourke’s production has fluency and drive, and a sense of purpose. If I have a complain, it’s it sacrifices ambition to a more measured approach. But it’s a small problem for a rich and beautiful production.
P.S. A final observation (contains SPOILERS): this is the third history play this year where the main character is killed by (for all intents and purposes) his lover. Is it a trend? Or am I seeing things?