REVIEW: William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus


William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, starring Tom Hidldeston in the title role, is currently streaming as part of the UK National Theatre at Home initiative.

Coriolanus is set in ancient Rome, where the people suffer from a famine and clamor for changes to the current ruling system. Distinguished general Caius Martius returns from a successful campaign in Corioles and is thus named “Coriolanus.” He finds himself caught in the middle of conflicts at home and abroad as his mother, Volumnia, pushes him to become a consul of Rome. But he is a soldier at heart and ill-suited to politics and thus, betrayal and banishment drive him to form an unexpected alliance with a former enemy, Tullus Aufidius. He vows revenge on the city that rejected him, but this final, ill-fated campaign leads to his downfall.

CoriolanusCoriolanus is particularly relevant in these times of social unrest and political upheaval because it portrays a a country in the throes of transformation, people demanding a voice, and the breakdown of oppressive structures and systems. The play explores the idea of power and the very pertinent question of in whom it should reside and whether it should ever be in the hands of a single person.

It also tackles the dangers of imposing inordinate pressure on an individual and how they can break from the weight of nigh-impossible expectations. In an interview with The Guardian, Hiddleston himself says it best:

I think the play also raises another complex question as to what degree any individual can withstand the intensity of idealisation and demonisation that comes with the mantle of unmoderated leadership or extraordinary responsibility.”

Directed by Josie Rourke, the production succeeds in bringing Shakespeare’s bloody epic to life even in a confined space. The production was filmed on stage at the Donmar Warehouse in 2014 by National Theatre Live.

The closed quarters of the Donmar Warehouse always push production teams to be more creative in their execution of material and the results in this case are truly impressive. Rourke made the most of the limited space and even turned it to her production’s advantage, ingeniously giving the focus on the characters and the dialogue more than the trappings of ancient Rome, creating a truly visceral experience.

The production was stripped to its bare essentials, the set design all the more striking for its sparseness. Simple props are deployed to impressive effect and even complicated battle scenes are deftly conveyed through chairs, ladders, and creative lighting.

CoriolanusA particularly memorable scene is when Caius Martius takes a shower after being bloodied in battle. The shower scene is not fan service but really more symbolic of the objectification of Martius’ body by the characters, how much blood he has shed for his city and how many scars he bears as proof of his service.

Hiddleston explains that the shower scene was also a way for the audience to see how the character bore his wounds in private even as he refused to reveal them in public. He cries out in pain as the cold water seemingly stings his wounds and one can feel him buckle under the weight of so much expectation. As Hiddleston says:

“We wanted to show him wincing, in deep pain: that these wounds and scars are not some highly prized commodity, but that beneath the exterior of the warrior-machine, idealised far beyond his sense of his own worth, is a human being who bleeds.”

The performances are consistently engaging and even with the majority of the ensemble seated in the shadowy background, when one character has his or her scene, the audience can look at no one else.

CoriolanusTom Hiddleston is magnificent as Caius Martius Coriolanus, giving depth and nuance to a controversial character. Coriolanus is a difficult man to root for but Hiddleston effectively captures the many facets of the character from the daring warrior, the haughty patrician with such disdain for the plebeians, the dutiful son, the reluctant consul, the vengeful exile, and eventually, the vulnerable family man.

He effectively portrays a man seemingly unyielding in his convictions and yet also easily swayed by his mother, whether she is prodding him to become consul or begging him to spare Rome. Coriolanus is constantly torn between his obedience to his mother and her aspirations for him and his own proud and brutally honest nature.

His fearlessness and ferocity in battle do him little favors when he tries to play the politician and there is a brilliant scene when Hiddleston sarcastically tries to win “votes” from his countrymen and it is obvious how he struggles to keep up appearances. When he eventually snaps and unleashes his rage against the people, one can already foresee his inevitable doom.

Deborah Findlay as Volumnia is masterful and mesmerizing, her powerful influence over her son evident from her first appearance. She is clearly the driving force behind the story – pushing her son to gain renown on the battlefield, then to become consul of Rome, and finally, to relent in his revenge plans to raze the city. Far from the traditional depictions of motherhood as full of tenderness and compassion, Volumnia’s love for her son is rooted in brutal ambition, and she values the glory he can bring to their house more than his own life.

The mother-son relationship is one of the more fascinating dynamics in Shakespeare’s plays and the chemistry between Findlay and Hiddleston effectively portrays this. For all his pride and rage, Martius can never bring himself to refuse anything his mother asks of him, even when they both know that some requests will end in tragedy.

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Virgilia, wife of Martius, does not share many scenes with her husband but in the few that she does, her manners and tender looks effectively convey the bond between them. She even employs some sensuality in the scenes where she tries to convince him to give up his bloody crusade.

Hadley Fraser as Tullus Aufidius gives a fascinating portrayal of a character who starts out as the lead’s fiercest foe and then somehow, becomes a powerful ally. The mutual admiration between the two warriors is evident from the moment they are face-to-face in battle.

CoriolanusWhile there are battle scenes in the play, the duel between Martius and Aufidius is the only one given complete fight choreography and it is an intense and gritty affair, both actors having rehearsed their movements extensively before the play’s run. Even as they exchange violent blows, there is a reluctant respect between them.

When their paths cross again later in the play and, in a rare display of humility, Martius puts himself at his enemy’s mercy, Aufidius recognizes an opportunity for them to finally become the brothers-in-arms they were destined to be. But the alliance is short-lived and soon Aufidius finds his rage replaced with sorrow.

Mark Gatiss gives a delightful performance and is a refreshingly jovial character in a cast of grim figures. His Menenius has the thankless task of counseling the stubborn Martius in his journey to becoming a consul and also tries his best to win the support of the people for his tempestuous protégé.

Peter de Jersey is regal and noble as the general Cominius, another supporter of Caius Martius, but one who is still unable to prevent the misfortunes that befall the ill-fated Coriolanus. Both Cominius and Menenius fail in their efforts to build Martius a career as a consul because they realize that he is a man who cannot go against his own nature.

Alfie Enoch plays Titus Lartius, a Roman general and another ally of Coriolanus. He is a brave and loyal companion in battle but he also is unable to help Coriolanus achieve his political ambitions.

The Tribunes, played by Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger, are as scheming and manipulative as one expects them to be, and though there is mutual hostility between them and the proud Martius, they hold the advantage because they are easily able to sway the people to their cause. In the end, Martius, for all his prowess in battle, is no match for seasoned politicians, who know the game too well.

The rest of the ensemble play multiple roles as Roman citizens and Volscians and though there are only a handful of actors, they are all still able to effectively convey the sense of a mob rising against a tyrant or an army of soldiers in the heat of battle. Once again, it is Rourke’s excellent direction that makes the most of the Donmar’s small space and allows the cast to be strategically placed in every scene. Not an inch of the stage is wasted.

The intense, intimate production brings out the character dynamics and the forces at play without distracting the audience with the bells and whistles of intricate set design or flashy costumes. The story is the star of the show and what better way to perform Shakespeare than to put the emphasis on his words.

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s more brutal works, full of rawness and rage, without the customary elegance and charm that audiences may be used to with the romances or comedies. Coriolanus is a bloody cautionary tale about the nature of power, a theme that will certainly resonate strongly with audiences today.

In a time where we are all deprived of the communal experience of live theater, the National Theatre at Home initiative has provided a worthwhile alternative experience and a reminder of the excitement and wonder a well-executed play can inspire. While we wait for the worst effects of the crisis to abate, we can take comfort in the hope of a better future. In the words of Coriolanus himself:

“There is a world elsewhere.”

The stream will be available on the National Theatre’s Youtube Channel from June 4  to June 11. Watch it while you can: