Would you have me false to my nature? Rather say I play the man I am.
Tom Hiddleston, who plays Coriolanus in the production currently playing at the Dommar Warehouse, is a star. I could end this review there really as that is what matters most when you are watching a production of Coriolanus. You need great presence, athleticism and emotional truth. That is a lot to ask but it is one of Shakespeare’s great parts and one that is not as generally well known as it deserves to be. This is a military hero with quite an emotional range, not just a muscle man who can fight off all comers. He is a patrician, brought up with a sense of entitlement, who has been brought up to believe that he is special- and he is. His great flaw is his arrogance- he sees no reason why he has to prove his worth to those who are clearly lesser mortals- but when he returns home from war he finds that if he wants to capitalise on his military victories and gain power that is exactly what he is forced to do. He has to become a politician and schmooze those who have less ability and intelligence than he has. Surely he has done enough? He is self aware enough to know that he just doesn’t have it in him to do this, but there is no circumventing the system. The supreme soldier is a very different animal to the supreme politician and this single character flaw provides the motor for the plot, a very astute exploration of power politics which is as relevant today as it ever was.
The great strength of this production is the way that it explores the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia, perfectly played by a formidable Deborah Findlay. She is the cause of all his problems. Even the common citizens know that, one of them says scornfully early on that Coriolanus has done what he has done to “please his mother” and in the end she is his downfall. He can never be who he truly is. The truth of the man lies somewhere in between the two roles which he has been forced to play. This is brought out with great clarity by Tom Hiddleston and it is the biggest strength of his performance. It will be hard to find a more moving Coriolanus in the future. Behind the arrogance and swagger is a confused man who has lost his way after fighting for his country until he is at the end of his strength, just so that his mother can count his wounds and boast of them. His victories belong to her but he is the one who has paid the price.
Volumnia is the mother in law from hell for Coriolanus’ beautiful wife Virgilia. It is an underwritten part but thankfully it has found an actress, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, who does not always need lines to let us know how she is feeling and who can unleash considerable passion when it is needed. Mark Gatiss turns in a very stylish and well timed performance as Menenius, a patrician politician to his fingertips. I really liked little Joe Willis as Young Martius too, a chip off the old block who announces that he is going to hide away until he is bigger and then come out and fight. There isn’t a weak performance, big or small, but I have seen the relationship between Coriolanus and his rival Aufidius (played with great relish by Hadley Frazer) brought out more stongly. I think that this is a production decision and possibly an inevitable result of the very successful decision to make Volumnia so central. There are always gains and losses of this kind- it is one of the things that makes watching Shakespeare so fascinating.
The simple production design by Lucy Osborne, a small graffiti covered back wall half painted red, and a number of plain wooden chairs, suits the small space of the Domar very well, looking as if it has always been there and the direction is fast and well disciplined.
I was glad to have a chance to see this production by live relay as, understandably, the tickets sold out in the first day and I am a long way from London, but it did feel like second best. I love the Donmar and the atmosphere in there would have been electric. Even some of those watching second hand in a small coastal town in North Yorkshire were talking back to the screen.