On both sides m…

On both sides more respect
– Menenius, Act III, Scene I

Coriolanus – Donmar Warehouse, London
CoriolanusSeen: January 4, 2014

Coriolanus is not an easy one. To quote the great philosopher Kris Kristofferson, he’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

On the plus side, Coriolanus is a principled guy and I think he’s right in what he is accusing the people of. On the other hand, he’s arrogant, his mother’s puppet (to a certain extent) and easily flies off the handle. What bothers me the most is that upon being banned (or, in his eyes, banning Rome from him), he immediately seeks out Rome’s biggest enemy to take revenge on his former home and everyone in it, including his family and friends. I have this weird thing for loyalty, so this always ticked me off and is in my opinion the crux when casting the title character.

The actor needs to be believable as a force of nature who can charge into a city alone (and come out alive and the victor), an arrogant ass, great soldier but horrible politician, principled but a vengeful traitor, while likeable and mature enough to have a devoted family, friends and supporters instead of having been murdered in his sleep years ago. There is definitely a danger of the audience turning indifferent to the ‘hero’ and checking out emotionally, thinking he’s had it coming. That was not the case in this production; there was crying and sniffling in the audience as well as shocked reactions to his bloody end.

Josie Rourke found the perfect fit in Tom Hiddleston, who seemingly effortless goes from humbly declining a bigger part of the spoils and asking for pardon of his former host (whose name he either can’t remember because of an adrenaline crash or because he never cared enough) and painfully cleaning himself up in private instead of being celebrated, to sharp-tongued, mocking arrogant snob who would rather be cast out and leave his family behind than apologize publicly and acquire some diplomatic skills.

The only gripe I had with Hiddleston’s performance was that I was cringing internally every time he waved his left arm around. While the people of Rome weren’t allowed to see the wounds acquired in battle, the audience did get to see them (nice make-up job and audible reaction from the audience) and that cut should have made moving the slinged arm only possible under considerable pain. Then again I also talk with my hands, so who am I to judge.

Mark Gatiss is brilliant as Menenius, the voice of reason and wise man who knows that some people are best asked for important things when their blood sugar levels are high. I really can’t remember the actor playing Menenius in the last production of this play I saw, this is definitely not going to happen here.

Deborah Findlay was one scary Volumnia – in a good way. Although a lot more politically savvy than her son, she is a woman of equally strong opinion who is not willing to suffer fools. I don’t think I have ever seen someone breathe fire so elegantly before.

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen not only delivers as Coriolanus’ devoted wife and mother to Caius jr., I never would have guessed she wasn’t a native English speaker or a novice to Shakespeare.

Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levey are deliciously weasly as schemers Sicinia (Sicinius in the original text) and Brutus.

I don’t agree with the criticisms I read about Hadley Fraser’s portrayal of Tullus Aufidius. What did bother me was that I didn’t believe Aufidius’ anger after Coriolanus’ betrayal. This might have been in part facilitated by the earlier scenes in which the part of the cast not currently actively engaged on stage were put in neutral at the back. For me, it took away from Aufidius standing there, listening to Coriolanus being swayed by his family after all and realizing he would be the fool once more. It’s also possible that his reaction felt flatter than the thrown chair’s short flight because Deborah Findlay and Tom Hiddleston really pulled out all the stops just seconds before.

There really is no weak link in the cast or badly directed part of the production and I couldn’t think of anything that was cut in the text that would have been missed. For example, a nice chunk of Act IV, Scene V is substituted by Aufidius’ servants just looking at each other and then to the audience. The play isn’t exactly full of chuckles, but that was quite a laugh, along with others thanks to the skilled and natural delivery of the lines by the entire cast.

The scarce stage setting fits brilliantly both the production and the venue. This was my first visit to the Donmar, but hopefully not my last. The only disadvantage of such an intimate theatre is that performances sell out quickly.

I thought Josie Rourke’s take on the play and direction were impressive and am really looking forward to seeing The Weir the next time I am in London.

In the meantime, I am curious to see if and how the play has to be changed for the NTLive broadcast into cinemas January 30 to fit the cameras. While nothing beats seeing a play live in a theatre, this is a great way for those not able to get tickets or travel to London. I hope most of the atmosphere can carry across the screen and would definitely recommend this production.