At first glance staging Shakespeare’s final tragedy in such a small, intimate space as The Donmar is something of an anomaly. However, digging deeper, one discovers that he possibly wrote Coriolanus for the Blackfriars Playhouse, a space which was around the same size.
Josie Rourke capitalizes on the Donmar’s intimacy by the clever use of ladders, a graffiti splattered wall, chairs and firebombs and the simple staging enables us to fully concentrate on the proceedings. Immersion in what is happening a few feet away from us is total. The chairs come into their own during the battle-scenes at Corioli, which I imagine in a lesser production could be very confusing. Add to this, the clarity with which each and every actor delivers their lines and this is Shakespeare at his best. Quite a lot has been written about the Volscians using very strong North Country accents, but for me, who was seeing Coriolanus for the first time, it’s a godsend. No confusion here on who is playing a Roman or a Volscian; it is crystal clear from the start.
Tom Hiddleston makes a thoroughly believable, multifaceted Coriolanus. He starts out a brave, but arrogant military hero, contemptuous of the rioters and ends up literally hoisted by his own petard due to his stubborn intransigence. But there is also a deep tenderness, love and aching sadness shown to devastating effect when his mother, wife and son persuade him to spare Rome. His realization that this turn around will cost him dear is heartbreaking to watch, as are the final few moments when we witness his death.
There is so much to recommend this latest Donmar offering, not least the scene where Coriolanus, blood soaked from battle, stands beneath a shower centre stage. The pain when the water hits is wounds is palpable, as is his isolation.
It seems wrong somehow to single out some performances and not others, as there is no weak link whatsoever, but the stand-outs are Deborah Findlay as Volumnia (Coriolanus’s domineering mother) and Mark Gatiss as the cunning patrician Menenius. Deborah Findlay gives such a well rounded performance. When we first meet her, she rather comically brags to Coriolanus’s wife, Virgilia, a very good Birgitte Hjort Sorensen of Borgen fame, about her son’s wounds, leaving us in no doubt that she has played no small a part in his warrior-like stance. Then towards the end she becomes a terrifying figure, intent in brow beating Coriolanus into doing a u-turn.
Also worth a special mention is the smirking, self-satisfied Elliott Levey as the male tribune member, Brutus and Hadley Fraser’s “is he properly gay or not” Aufidius, the commander of the Volscian army.
The costumes, a mixture of modern and period, work well, the music and sound likewise, so all in all, the Donmar is back up to speed and I’ll be booking my cinema ticket in order to see the NT Live broadcast on January 30th.