Josie Rouke’s recent production of Coriolanus at the Donmar Theatre revitalises Shakespeare’s political drama by presenting the audience with both the foreign and the familiar. Set in Ancient Italy before the rise of the Roman Empire, Coriolanus centres on the great war hero Caius Marcius and his tense relationship with the disgruntled citizens.
On the one hand, this is a contemporary performance. It is urban and gritty with graffiti spray painted across the backdrop and modern costumes. Yet, this is a world removed from us – the world of Ancient Rome and the problems that it faces.
This represents the hold which adaptations of Shakespeare often have upon modern audiences: the sense of a distant external world presented through archaic language, but possessing the enduring themes to which humanity is subject. Coriolanus has these in abundance: the fraught, dependent relationship between mother and son, the limits of revenge and the struggle of poverty. Perhaps the most interesting of the themes in this adaptation is that of the struggle of placing a military hero onto the stage of politics – and the fireworks that consequently erupt.
The portrayal of this theme rests upon the dynamic performance of Tom Hiddleston. Caius Marcius Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s great, though often overlooked, tragic heroes who exemplifies how the fall from hero of the people to their enemy is easy. Quite rightly, many reviews of the play focus on the powerhouse performance Hiddleston gives.
The calibre of his performance cannot be overstated, with shifts from violence to rhetoric combined with subtle emotional nuances. It is a performance of an actor truly in control of their character and it carries the whole play. The supporting cast are also strong, particularly Mark Gatiss as Menenius, adding a comedic tone to the heavy play.
My only qualm lies with the inconsistency of staging elements, as the entire company sits on the stage through the majority of the play within a boxed-off area of performance. Although at times this is used effectively, at others it is frustratingly broken.
One of the initial scenes of the play is the battle-scene, wherein the stage is besieged with blood, water and dirt which remain up until the interval. This physical reminder of death and violence is imbued into every succeeding scene, creating the idea that the battle is not over; just the players have changed.
The relevance of reviewing a show is in London may seem tenuous to an Oxford reader. However, this show is the next in a line of National Theatre productions to be broadcast to cinemas on the 30th January. The debate over the transferal of media and the argument that something is ‘lost’ in this translation is still very pertinent.
Of course, the primary factor is that it allows more people to see West End theatre regardless of money, geography and other limiting factors. There is, however, a reason that the Donmar Warehouse is such a small theatre – with only 251 seats – and why this play works so well within this context.
This is because of the feeling of intimacy, the shocking closeness to violence, and ultimately the performance of tragic fall by someone mere metres from you.
This production of Coriolanus is Shakespeare adaptation done right, and if you get the opportunity to see it – on stage or screen – seize it.
Coriolanus is showing until the 8th of February at The Donmar Warehouse, London.