Last night, I saw Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, as part of the NT Live series of plays broadcast to cinemas. Playing at the tiny Donmar Warehouse in London – a mere 251 seats – this was the only way to get to see this production. The main draw was the lead actor, Tom Hiddleston; while he was excellent, the rest of the cast was also up to his level.
Coriolanus is set in a time of strife. Romans are demonstrating because they lack food, and the leaders have been withholding stores of grain. They blame Caius Martius, a Roman general, for this. Caius Martius critizes them, but when he hears that a Volscian army is approaching Rome, he leaves to fight the Volscians in their city of Corioles. He returns, after defeating the Volscians, and his deeds earn him respect. He is given the agnomen of Coriolanus, and is encouraged to run for consul.
He wins, but the people doubt his honesty in attracting their votes. He eventually gets banished from Rome by the same people who want him to be consul. Leaving Rome, he heads to the Volscian capital of Antium, where he seeks out their leader, Aufidius, and plots to attack Rome. This being more or less a tragedy, there is a tragic ending.
Director Josie Rourke manages to take this play about war and dissension and squeeze it into a small space. The stage of the Donmar is tiny, and the set was sparse. There was a wall behind the stage, where people wrote graffiti, and a ladder leading up from the stage, as you can see above. Other than that, the only elements of staging were the occasional chairs and lecterns that the cast brought out. During parts of the play, the cast sat against the wall in silence, as other actors were “on stage.”
Hiddleston is a riveting Coriolanus. He is cold and calculating, violent and bloody. But he nevertheless remains a flawed human. He goes through many changes, some self-imposed, others the result of a manipulating mother. He never manages to free himself from his mother, however, which leads to his tragic end. The only area I felt he was weak was in showing his disdain for the people of Rome. He chose a snickering disdain, which didn’t feel totally sincere; it didn’t feel like the type of disdain we see from politicians, where contempt is hidden behind a veneer of caring.
While some plays with stars tend to be imbalanced (see my recent article Do We Need Shakespeare Productions Without Stars?), this Coriolanus has a cast that doesn’t let Hiddleston steal the show. Mark Gatiss is excellent as the “humorous patrician” Menenius, and Deborah Findlay was a strong and powerful Volumnia (Coriolanus’ mother). I felt that Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia was a bit wishy-washy; at times she was absent, and at others she overacted. But the rest of the cast was excellent and there were few weak moments.
The NT Live production, however, had some problems. During the first part of the play – up until the intermission – the sound was iffy. At times, it was hard to hear what was being said; when people were talking softly, or when they were very loud. It didn’t seem as though the actors were wearing microphones, and the miking was not excellent. Hiddleston seemed to be acting for the cinema, not the stage; he didn’t project his voice well enough. This improved in the second half, though I could not make out Aufidius’ final growling words at all. And the music which was used to punctuate scenes was annoying. I’ve heard this sort of banal, generic electro-pop in several theatrical productions, and it adds nothing to the play; it just seems out of character. I also found a bit disturbing the fight sequence between Caius Martius and Aufidus early in the play. There was a handheld camera very close to the actors, that seemed to break the “invisible wall” between the stage and the audience. I felt that I was too close to the action; zooming one of the cameras off-stage would have been fine. And the handheld was very shaky; this could have been avoided with a steadicam. I wonder how the spectators in the theater felt about that intrusive camera.
(We could also do without some of the interstitial chatter, that just wastes time, and takes audience out of the atmosphere of the play. I’m glad that The Guardian finally reacted to the bogus “bonus” features in NT Live productions.)
Near the end of the play, when Coriolanus stands at the corner of the stage as his mother, wife and son beg him to spare Rome, Hiddleston manages to visibly tear up. This is no mean feat, and this tearful remorse says a lot about this violent man who has decided that peace is the better choice.
“Ladies, you deserve
To have a temple built you: all the swords
In Italy, and her confederate arms,
Could not have made this peace.”
Rourke makes a lot of cuts at this point, moving directly to the final scene, where Coriolanus tells Aufidius of his agreement to save Rome, and then to the denouement of the play, and of Coriolanus’ fate. For those unfamiliar with the play, this transition might have been a bit jarring and confusing, since it suggests that Coriolanus met his mother, wife and child in Antium, but that it was indeed just outside of Rome where he had the long conversation with them. Here and elsewhere, the spatial element of the production made it hard to know where events were taking place. Some more visual cues might have helped.
Nevertheless, this was a powerful, raw production of a play that should be better known. Coriolanus as a character presents many traits that we can relate to, and the protest at the beginning of the play is, unfortunately, a familiar element in today’s society. The cast earned a standing ovation from the theater’s audience, deservedly so. I would very much like to have seen this live.