#TeamMartius – Coriolanus (Donmar Warehouse)
*I am so sorry that this has taken so long to write, I came back to Paris and Sherlock happened and it got put on the back burner a bit. But here it is now, more than a month after I saw it. Spoiler warnings for the staging of this version only. No point giving a spoiler warning for a play that is 500 years old*
God bless the returns queue. Thanks to this marvellous invention a friend and I managed to procure to front row tickets for The Most Difficult Show To Get Tickets For (yes, that is its proper title) Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s less well known tragedies. I have written up a silly plot line for those that don’t know, which can be found in a separate post here on the blog. This is without a doubt one of the most extraordinary pieces of theatre I have seen this year, thanks largely to a heart wrenching central performance by Tom Hiddleston. He is beautiful, powerful, impressive with exquisite comic timing that imbues our blood soaked war lord with heart and humanity. There is a reason I’ve called this review #TeamMartius. He is, to put it mildly, a bit of a tosser but Hiddleston succeeds in making you care desperately about him. You are on his side the entire time, even when he stands there and throws everything his people have given him back in their faces and cruelly brushes off his friends and advisors. You’re still rooting for him and hoping that the inevitable tragic ending might not go that way this time. (It always does. Anyone who has ever had the “pleasure” of watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet with me will know that I get really angry when she doesn’t wake up just TWO SECONDS BEFORE.) If I were to comb over every detail of his stunningly multi faceted performance we would be here for pages so I shall just discuss a pick of the bunch. Hiddleston does crazed soldier incredibly well, as is expertly showcased during the particularly violent siege of Corioli and the subsequent face off with Tullus Aufidius. The battle sequence between Hiddleston and Hadley Fraser as his enemy Aufidius is an incredible, breathtaking and entirely convincing set piece. Hiddleston is at his most terrifyingly beautiful during this sequence, prowling low to the ground and snarling like an angry tiger waiting to pounce, sword in hand with a look of deranged violence in his eyes. For a moment I was so drawn into the action that I had forgotten that we weren’t actually watching the siege of Corioli and that Hiddleston wasn’t about to rip Hadley Fraser’s throat out live on stage. It was remarkable, edge of your seat acting that stayed with me long after we left the theatre. I feel compelled to tell you all though, because it is of great public importance, that this scene is made all the more unmissable by how OUTRAGEOUSLY tight Hiddleston’s jeans are. I shall say no more than that we were all grateful to whoever chose those jeans.
There is one scene that I am sure has been greatly talked about amongst the lady fans of Mr Hiddleston, primarily because he takes his shirt off and stands under a shower. Whilst this may sound sexy, I can assure you that this is one of the most engaging and gut wrenching moments of the entire play. It is one moment where we see the weakness of our battle hardened protagonist as he squirms and screams through the pain of his wounds. It is a phenomenal piece of emotional acting which left one feeling slightly breathless in its brutality. There is an especially beautiful moment in which Hiddleston shakes his hair and, thanks to the lighting, we see a shower of droplets spray across the stage, stained red by the blood of the town that he has just destroyed. Upon noticing, the entire audience gasped.
Whilst this is Hiddleston’s vehicle, he is by no means the only strong performer in this cast. In fact it is very difficult to fault a single member of this cast, they work together like a well oiled machine. Hadley Fraser is impressive as Aufidius, with a gruff Northern accent and really playing up the homoerotic relationship between the two great generals. Aufidius hates Martius BIG TIME. But he hates him so much that, in a twisted turn of events, Aufidius hearts Martius BIG TIME. The final tableau of the play is an incredibly disturbing manifestation of this relationship in which we see Aufidius gleefully lapping up the blood of his all time enemy who spins from the ceiling having just had his throat cut by Aufidius. This hatred is rather interestingly contrasted with an extraordinary scene in which Aufidius kisses Coriolanus. But this is no chaste peck, it is a full on snog, one filled with passion and hatred. It seemed to me that Aufidius was just so furious and yet so overjoyed that his enemy had walked straight into his home that there was almost nothing else he could do. If I had one criticism of Fraser’s performance was that there was not enough of him. Having not read the play I’m not entirely sure whether that is Shakespeare’s doing or if it is to do with the cutting down of the play but whichever it is a great shame. Fraser was exceptional and I truly enjoyed watching him.
The other big player in this story is Deborah Findlay as Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia. In this role Findlay excels, especially in the interactions with her son, who she most certainly has wrapped around her little finger. In her presence, Hiddleston turns his Martius into a teenager with a proper mard on, stomping around the stage, throwing all his toys out of the pram. Her command over her son is best exemplified when Rome decides to send in the heavies, aka Volumnia. She appears with the wife and son of the general in tow, a shrewd move if you want to break the heart of the toughest nut in Rome. Findlay’s physicality has morphed from proud, upstanding, slightly blood thirsty mother to a frail old lady, devoid of make up and clad only in grey. Of course we know that this is all an act to bend her son to her will and boy oh boy does it work. After a beautifully emotional plea to stop Martius from burning Rome to the ground, she succeeds in breaking him down and inadvertently bringing about his downfall. Martius just snaps at this point, a great tidal wave of emotion spilling from him. There is something disconcerting and uncomfortable about watching a 6ft tall man, a man who has left one of the greatest cities of the ancient world shaking in its boots, crumple in half and shake with wracking sobs into the shoulder of his much smaller mother, a woman to whom he has essentially just bowed down to. It is an emotional display that is a proper stomach punch and Hiddleston shows just how really very good he is at fake crying. I mean he is really good. I’m almost jealous. Volumnia is perhaps the most frightening character in the play because of her extraordinary manipulative powers. Also she gets really excited when she’s counting up her son’s battle wounds. We must all admit that’s a bit not normal.
The weakest elements of the play were by far the staging and the music. The music, a sort of angry dubstep style thing, felt distracting and at odds with the action of the play. The set left something to be desired in its simplicity, in fact the only set to speak of was a ladder planted in the middle of the stage and several metal chairs. I do understand the minimalist look, it is very Donmar Warehouse but I prefer my sets a little more dressed than that, especially when trying to evoke a civilisation as powerful as Rome was. I will say one giant thing in favour of it though THERE WERE ACTUAL FIREWORKS ON STAGE. IT WAS SO EXCITING. It would appear that pyrotechnics are the way to win me round if you have a somewhat lacklustre set.
Coriolanus is a whirlwind of a production with everyone firing on all cylinders. I’ve not even begun to talk about how funny Hiddleston is (the answer is very. He becomes the human personification of sarcasm in the gown of humility scene and it is just brilliant) or how great the others members of the cast are (Mark Gatiss is fantastic as Menenius, another character I felt was a bit underused) but if I did we would be here for pages and pages. I’ll leave this by saying that if you never understood the Hiddleston hype before you will now, the man is an incredibly talented performer and deserves all the wonderful stuff that is undoubtedly going to come his way.
Coriolanus runs until 13th February at the Donmar Warehouse.