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Coriolanus - Review * 22 December 2013


Shakespeare presented in searing form, the Donmar Warehouse's new production of Coriolanus brings an incredible cast together, with Mark Gatiss featuring alongside Tom Hiddleston and a superb ensemble in intense, gripping form under the direction of Josie Rourke.

William Shakespeare's final tragedy, Coriolanus is arguably the Bard's most overtly political play, asking uneasy questions about the roles of the military in civilian life, class divisions, and the competing roles of masculinity and feminity. It is principally concerned with Caius Martius (Hiddleston), a superb soldier and skilful warrior who has been honed into the ultimate fighting machine by his mother Volumnia (Deborah Findley) to fight the enemies of the young city of Rome. Following his almost single handed victory and sacking of the city of Corioles, Martius is bestowed the honourific surname of Coriolanus and is feted by politicians for office, led by Menenius (Gatiss). But Martius is unloved by the people of Rome due to his manner and personality, and in effect the very conditioning that makes him so effective a warrior leads to his own eventual downfall when he is provoked into decrying the notion of democracy. He is a blunt instrument useless in peacetime.


Tom Hiddleston shoulders the entire play and imbues the character of Caius Martius with a multi-faceted portrayal that dances from ferocity to delicacy. This is a man who is not easy to warm to due to his very purpose, his upbringing feeding into how he responds to those around him. He has been bred to be better, and thus thinks himself so, looking down on the public he is supposed to curry favour with to become an effective politician. Hiddleston brings this arrogance to the fore, but also invests Martius with a degree of unexpected humour, as well as a softness and warmth when interacting with those closest to him that ultimately engenders our sympathy when the realisation of his impending doom arrives. Rarely is he alone on stage, but in one single stand out moment, post victory, a bloodied and battered Martius strips to the waist and showers the evidence of battle away in a verbally silent yet painfully gasping moment of vulnerability. Make no mistake, this is a physically demanding role, with whip-crack fast fight choreography being added to the extraordinary verbiage the role requires, and the lithe and deadly Hiddleston rises to the occasion in physically imposing fashion. In short, this is one of the best performances by an actor we've seen in a theatre this year.   

Mark Gatiss takes second billing, and the second largest speaking part, as Menenius, friend of Caius Martius. Wily yet very warm, this is an intriguing performance from Gatiss, playing a man who realises how powerful an asset Martius is to Rome against its numerous enemies, and thus the burgeoning danger that he in turn presents once he has been rejected by the people of the city. Menenius is a politician through and through, desperate to do the best for the city but hamstrung by the wishes of its citizens, and is thus reduced to fear and rejection when he confronts his friend for the final desperate time - an encounter that leaves the confident Menenius emotionally shell-shocked and broken.  


The other members of the ensemble cast are perfectly cast and uniformly superb, with stand-out members Deborah Findley and Birgette Hjort Sørensen portraying Martius' mother and wife respectively. Both play the final critical moment in the play to perfection, a scene where femininity quells masculine anger and vengeance, after male contemporaries have failed to make Martius listen to reason. Also noteworthy is Hadley Fraser as Aufidius, the long standing enemy that becomes an uneasy ally and eventual executioner to Martius, investing the role with what can be seen as homoerotic yearning for his great rival when he finally and unexpectedly has him in his thrall.

Coriolanius fills the intimacy of the Donmar Warehouse to great effect, the sparing staging allowing imagination to take over. This is one of Shakespeare's largest plays in terms of narrative scale, and the early assault on Corioles is a great showcase for how large action can be performed in a small space, the use of a single physical ladder on the stage for Hiddleston to climb supplemented with light, sound, and onstage effects to give the impression of a gigantic battle scene. Never would you expect a row of lined chairs to be so effectively utilised either. The space is frequently swept in between scenes, the detritus of battle or victory pushed into the gutters surrounding the square stage. The presentation is neither contemporary nor classical, costuming mixing armour and modern footwear. Everything coalesces to produce an ageless look that allows the complex thematic issues at the heart of the play all the more immediate come the final savage, demanding and extraordinary moments of this intense and remarkable production.  

Coriolanus is performing at the Donmar Warehouse until February 8 2014. Though sold out, a limited amount of tickets are released via Barclays Front Row every Monday for performances two weeks afterwards.

In conjunction with National Theatre Live, the play will be broadcast to UK cinemas on January 30 2014, with worldwide broadcasts to follow. Check the NT Live website for full details.