Too Noble for Politics – Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

In case anyone hasn’t seen this wonderful production yet, I am here issuing a warning – caveat lector! Spoiler alert! Having discharged this duty, on with the show …

On January 30th I went to see a play. It isn’t one of Shakespeare’s well-known works – in fact, until this production was advertised, I really knew only its name, Coriolanus, and had no idea what it was about – so I went without knowing quite what to expect. I was utterly bowled over by the play and the performance. It is an epic story, glorious, complex and powerful, swarming with conspiracy, ideals, emotion and betrayal. At the heart of the play is an equally complex and powerful man, Caius Martius, who begins as a celebrated warrior and is forced into a situation he does not desire and cannot deal with. On paper, he should be hard to sympathize with. He is proud, difficult, stubborn, with an ingrained superiority complex and an unfortunate view of the common people that should make anyone living in a democratic country froth at the mouth – and yet, I couldn’t help admiring his unyielding honesty in the face of intense pressure from all sides.
‘Would you have me play false to my nature?’ he snarls. ‘Rather say I play the man I am.’ And that attitude, as much an integral part of him as his bred-in-the-bone courage and warrior’s spirit, is what causes the spiral of events leading inevitably to his downfall. But it is also perhaps his most admirable quality. Menenius, his witty, quick-thinking mentor, says that he is ‘too noble’ and as the play progresses, you feel that he is correct. Martius is a warrior, and that’s all he wants to be. Martius was quite content to carry on being Martius for the rest of his life – it’s the people who make him Coriolanus, forcing upon him a responsibility he does not want. To quote another of Shakespeare’s famous lines from a different play, ‘some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’ – and Caius Martius actually corresponds to all three. He is born great in that his natural personality is one of strength and truth. He achieves greatness by using his natural ability in battle and doing his duty. But then he is pushed, protesting, into another kind of greatness, and that’s when the trouble begins. He cannot adjust to the change in circumstances, and he cannot make the transition from the physical dance of war to the deceptive, doublespeak dance of politics. There is a common saying now to the effect that you can tell when a politician is lying by seeing if his lips are moving. Coriolanus is not a politician. He is a brilliant, fearless, arrogant soldier who suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. He is incurably honest, and nearly every time he opens his mouth, he lets fly an opinion that should never be expressed publicly. The results are disastrous. From fawning over his exploits and elevating him almost to god-status, the people turn to hating him with an even greater passion. He always said that the voice of the people is a fickle one, and as much as you deplore his lack of care for the people’s plight, you realize that some of his contempt is, sadly, justified. The twisting plot exposes how easily people en masse are led by strong voices who tell them what they want to hear, and how quickly their love can be turned to utter hate. And that quality of Shakespeare’s writing, to turn an ancient story into something timeless by exploring human nature, is what makes this underrated play so interesting and so relevant. In the real world, heroes are not flawless, and loyalties are often divided. When you give a person from a privileged background too much power, it will come back to bite you. But on the other side of the coin, the world will always try to break those who stick rigidly to their ideals and refuse to let it mould them into its preferred form.
Now onto the performance itself. I love set design and staging, but I will admit that sometimes a particularly lavish set crammed with extras and bursting with colour can be a little distracting. This production was pared-back, minimalist – the stage was roughly the size of a large sitting-room, and the cast numbered fourteen in total. The choreography was fantastic – oh! those fight scenes! And it was truly astonishing to see what can be done by fourteen people when they pull together as a tightly knit team. The only props were a long ladder, some chairs, chains, and the very necessary swords. The lighting design was equally minimalist, but it really worked. Without the distraction of a huge cast and a sumptuous backdrop, the audience could concentrate more on the plot. It also showcased the actors’ talents in a way I had not anticipated. The emotion was intense, all the way through, and everyone played their parts with passion and sympathy.
Mark Gatiss made a sharp and amusing Menenius, which meant that his evident sense of betrayal and hurt at the end was all the more poignant. He has some really very funny lines, and you could see the care he has for his protege, his ‘son’, and the anxiety and disappointment he experiences when Coriolanus blunders so fatally.
Deborah Findlay was excellent as Volumnia, a proud, strong-minded mother whose ambition for her beloved son sets the whole thing in motion. Her outburst at the end, as she pleads for Rome to the man it banished, the son she is no longer certain she knows, was deeply moving.
Hadley Fraser, a rough, tough, bearded Aufidius, was eminently believable in his vengeful hatred toward Coriolanus, but also in his strange jealous obsession with the man who bested him, as he thirsts for a second chance to defeat his enemy, yet wishes, with a desperation bordering on idolatry, that their purposes were compatible.
The two schemers, Brutus and a genderswapped Sicinia, were strong characters played with sarcasm as well as screaming hatred by Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger, fascinating and terrible to watch as they plotted and whipped up the people of Rome in order to serve their own ends.
I felt for Virgilia (Birgitte Hjort Sorenson), the faithful wife, who is the only person in the play who wants her husband to be just himself, Martius, the man she loves. She is bewildered by his mother’s glee in his war wounds, not caring that they give him status or street credibility – all she wants is for him to be safe. But her sweet constancy is overshadowed by the dominating presence of Volumnia, who will always have a hold on Coriolanus that she herself can never hope to possess.
But the star of the show, as is only right, was definitely the main man, Coriolanus, portrayed with conviction, passion and heartbreaking intensity by the phenomenon that is Tom Hiddleston.
L. M. Montgomery propounded an interesting question when she made her heroine ask ‘Which would you rather be; divinely beautiful, dazzlingly clever, or angelically good?’ and Hiddleston has no need to worry about at least the first two of those qualities. But it is the intelligence and the sympathy with which he inhabits his characters that makes his work shine. I was drawn irresistibly into his performance of the role, admiring the courage and honesty of the man even while I cringed at his readily-aired contempt of the people who want him as their leader. There was one particular moment that grabbed me and refused to let go – the moment near the end, just before he makes the decision that will in effect sign his death warrant; I discovered that I didn’t actually know what he was going to do. His tears betrayed the inward struggle he faced – he would say it had taken much to make his eyes ‘sweat with compassion’ – but I really had no idea whether he would allow his sense of justice and his more tender emotions to prevail, or cling to his wounded revenge with the stubborn pride he had shown so much over the course of the play. It was a mesmeric, powerful, scintillating performance, brought to a shockingly, brutally quick yet tragic end as the falling rose petals echoed the spilling blood of the man who shouldn’t be a hero.