William Shakespere
National Theatre
National Theatre

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus Credit: Johan Persson
Coriolanus Credit: Johan Persson
Coriolanus Credit: Johan Persson

This is one of Shakespeare’s most visceral and challenging plays and is never an easy watch. But its plot is perhaps one of his most empathic as it lays bare the role of government in a flawed society and the inherent problems of democracy weighed up against the needs of the individual.

Set in ancient Rome, its central character, Caius Martius Coriolanus, is not a likeable man. He’s hard, brutal and unbending, a soldier for soldiers, rough around the edges, a man who would rather speak in action than words. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s plays, there is no lightening of the mood with a comic character (even Macbeth has the porter), and, as one of the last plays he wrote, he has much to say about the fickleness of the crowd, the challenges of leadership and the tragedy of human weakness.

But, in spite of this being in a lot of respects a man’s play about men, there are two very strong roles for women: the mother who lives through the heroic deeds of her son and the wife patiently waiting, constantly being abandoned for her husband’s overriding passion—in this case for battle. Is Will exploring his own experiences with the women in his life?

The plot centres on General Martius, much decorated for his bravery, who is persuaded to become Consul. But he is not cut out to be a politician and his handling of both ‘the people’ and the situation leads to his eventual banishment when he joins forces with Rome’s old enemy Tullus Aufidius and marches on the city to seek his revenge. At the last moment, his wife, mother and son plead for mercy on behalf of the citizens and he relents, but this leads to his own untimely death.

The Donmar is an intimate space and this is a stripped-back performance leaving Tom Hiddleston in the title role nowhere to hide. Not that he needs to—his Martius is not the grizzled, battle-hardened warrior of Ralph Fiennes's recent film portrayal but a young, vibrant soldier still in his prime, bursting with vitality and raw emotion. He wants to serve his country on the battlefield and has no time for politics and wooing voters.

Mark Gattis as Menenius, the ‘ultimate’ politician, is equally powerful in a more subtle way, manipulating the consul but at the same time showing his love and respect for this untameable force of nature. He above everybody understands this man but still fails to tame him.

Director Josie Rourke makes the most of the space, drawing us into the different fractured relationships and Coriolanus' hidden battle with himself. She does not spare us the blood that paints his face or pours out of his wounds. The battle scenes are cleverly done with a minimum of props: a few chairs, ladders, exploding lights. The set is minimal and lets the actors explore each character and bring out the nuances in the ripe language of the script.

Deborah Findlay paints a striking portrait as the iron mother Volumina, almost too strident in places, although commanding the stage and thoroughly believable at the end as she bows the knee and seeks to persuade her son not to destroy the city he loves. Hadley Fraser as Aufidius is well matched in the fight scenes but maybe slightly overplays the homoerotic nature of his friendship with his old enemy.

The rest of the cast give the production breadth and pace. Costume is mostly modern with touches of Rome: belts and buckles, the odd cape or breastplate. It all blends and never grates.

Even with cuts, this comes in at just under three hours, but if you want a production of this tricky play that stands up to scrutiny and with a stellar cast that makes it accessible and watchable, you would find it hard to better this one.

Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes

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