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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
CORIOLANUS
at the Donmar Warehouse

THE PEOPLE VS. THE PRIVILEGED
By ANGIE ERRIGO

  Tom Hiddleston/ Ph: Johan Persson

There are fireworks in Josie Rourke’s enthralling staging of Shakespeare’s tricky last great tragedy – both actual sparklers that flare when the war hero general Caius Martius scales the walls of Corioli to engage the Volsces, and those in the blazing performance of Tom Hiddleston. The heartthrob status of Hiddleston, an Old Etonian who slips gracefully between classical theatre and Hollywood blockbuster, was sufficient to make the show a red-hot ticket before it opened. But he exceeds expectations, quite riveting as the saviour of his nation brought low by hubris.
 
Shakespeare’s most political drama is frequently described as admired rather than loved, with its austere protagonist a patrician warrior who is all about honour, duty, courage and energised by power rhetoric, not poetry. Certainly the obstinate aristocrat’s unbending attitude doesn’t endear him or serve his ambition well while he and his antagonists declaim opposing political philosophies: the will of the people versus the authority of the privileged. But here the talking has exciting dramatic urgency. We grasp immediately that Caius Martius’ Rome is in its republican infancy, its citizens hungry both for corn and acknowledgement as they figure out how a government should work.
 
Rourke’s savvy, spare production – dressed with just a graffiti daubed wall, a dozen chairs and a ladder – and small ensemble dial down the clamour of the rioting mob to focus on the reasoning its representative citizens voice, striking the tone and creating the tension of a cracking political thriller. Yet again one is thunderstruck at how timely a 400-year-old play can be, how recognisable the thoughts, desires, deeds and flaws of its characters. Like the English teacher said in classic teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You: “For a dead, white dude, Shakespeare knew his shit.” Rourke makes the contemporary resonance crystal clear, the arguments absolutely gripping. And one cannot fail to recognise the conspirators as the conniving bastards, self-serving opportunists or well-intentioned, toothless public servants we know too well. Most pointedly, the extremism at two uncompromising ends of the political spectrum is shown for ruinous folly.
 
Hiddleston’s youthful looks and his self-control are deceptive. He brings complexity, a thoughtful, moving struggle and real humanity to a character often perceived as cold and remote. One may be fooled into thinking his ferocity is reserved for battle, but when political opponents orchestrate his downfall and banishment, just as he was poised to assume leadership, his resentment and his despairing bitterness – prompting his alliance with former enemy, the “savage” Aufidius (Hadley Fraser, a likeable volatile, commanding hard man) and his return at the head of an invading army – are frightening, and the consequences are achingly tragic indeed to behold.
 
Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia is spectacular, her zeal for her son’s glory disturbingly ardent. Mark Gatiss’ suave mentor Menenius, and a double act wittily oozing irony in Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger as conniving Tribunes Brutus and the feminised Sicinius, Sicinia, also score. The only disappointment – at least to British television viewers who hung on the Danish political serial Borgen, in which she starred as a newswoman – is that Birgitte Hjort Sorensen can’t make much of her wan, wifely Virgilia, although she looks decorative in stylish stilettos.
 
The performances are heightened in striking lighting, and there are unforgettable moments: Coriolanus washing off the gore of battle in a startling, blindingly white-lit power shower, steeling himself for the next fight, and, at the devastating last, hung upside down in chains, gutted like a beast, showered this time in blood, his sacrifice and loss down to very human failure not his alone. It’s simply stunning from start to finish.

 


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