In her finest achievement to date as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, Josie Rourke directs this stark, swiftly-paced account of Shakespeare’s severe Roman play and elicits a central performance of blazing stellar power and intelligence from Tom Hiddleston.
Her remarkably resourceful production capitalises on the intimacy of the space to give the epic proceedings a shocking visceral immediacy. The staging is simple but highly effective with the battle scenes conjured up by the ingenious, nerve-shredding use of ladders, chairs and fire bombs.
Right from the outset, this story of class-warfare in an emergent democracy and of the psychologically crippling effects of the aristocratic martial code is told with a fierce clarity. Coriolanus’s little son Martius is seen tracing a diamond-shaped enclosure on the stage in blood-red paint while discontented plebeians, in modern hoodies, spray demands for “Grain at our own price” on the graffiti-strewn back wall.
A strapping hawk-like figure, Hiddleston exudes the arrogance and dangerous charisma of one of nature’s cruel head-prefects. But he also hauntingly hints at the terrible isolation of this hero who has been emotionally stunted and turned into a killing machine by his ambitious domineering mother. This is in no way a sentimentalised portrayal.
Hiddleston delivers Coriolanus’s speeches of contempt for the plebeians with a blistering scorn and mocks them with a wheedling parody of subservience when forced to woo their votes for the consulship. The same single-minded qualities that make him a great warrior are a political liability in peacetime and the scheming tribunes of the people (sneaky, smug Elliott Levey and Helen Schlesinger) find it easy exploit his intransigence, luring him into a disastrous proto-Fascist rant before the senate that leaves his patrician mentor Menenius (wily, understated Mark Gatiss) in gobsmacked despair.
Stealthily, though, Hiddleston’s magnificent performance compels you to feel what an awful fate it is to be Coriolanus. There’s an extraordinary sequence here in which, blood-soaked after battle, he stands under a shower of water gasping with pain. We are suddenly privy to the lonely willpower of the man behind the myth.
Deborah Findlay is superb as his ferociously doting, militaristic mother – at first grotesquely comic, bragging about his wounds as though they were school cups brought home to please her, but then a terrifying figure as she tries to browbeat him into betraying the nature that she herself formed.
In the scene in which she, his wife (played by Borgen star Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and his son beseech him to spare Rome, Hiddleston shows you, with great delicacy, the confused, aching sadness of this belated thaw and Coriolanus’s clear tragic recognition that it will cost him his life.
It’s a mistake, I think, to make the Volscians, the tribe to which he defects, such blunt North Country types and Hadley Fraser, as his great rival Tullus Aufidius, slightly exaggerates the homoerotic attraction between these adversaries, provoking laughter with the line “Know thou first, I love the maid I married” after a passionate kiss.
But I’ve never known the savage ending carry the poignant charge it has here and strongly recommend the NT Live broadcast of this sold-out show on January 30.