By: The Donmar Theater, London
Seen on: January 21/22/23 & January 30 (in cinema)
I was lucky enough to see Coriolanus live at the Donmar Warehouse in London (tickets were sold out months before the run began), and let me tell you, it was amazing. It took a few hours of queuing, but it was more than worth it.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known and performed works, and maybe that is what makes it so special. Or maybe it is just the stellar cast, set and direction. I think it’s a little bit of both.
Deborah Findley is simply stunning as Volumnia, Caius Marcius’ mother. She is a powerhouse, such a grand presence on stage, and even though she doesn’t have many scenes, she does have a few of the most memorable moments. Her plead to Caius Marcius for him to make peace and spare Rome is heartbreaking and it moved me to tears, along with Caius Marcius. She was a perfect mix between manipulative, proud, strong and sorrowful towards the end, without it being overdone. Truly inspiring.
Mark Gatiss as Menenius is subtle, charming and so, so powerful. His better scenes come after the interval, where he loudly and vocally defends Caius Marcius to the people and their tributes, when they all realize their actions have set Caius Marcius against Rome, and subsequently their lives. His visit with Caius Marcius, and his cold dismissal, is painful to watch and really gripped me. “Away.” That word will for a long time remind me of that scene. Mark Gatiss did it brilliantly heartbreaking.
Hadley Fraser as Tullus Aufidius is a very good counterbalance to Caius Marcius’ cold heart. Aufidius is softer, funnier, more emotional, but no less a general and a warrior. Hadley Fraser plays him very subtly, playing his anger, resentment, sadness, and the inevitable rage towards Caius Marcius really well. The character development is very nicely done. I enjoyed being led to his final decision like that and the ending made perfect sense to me. And yes, Aufidius kisses Caius Marcius and yes, there are a lot of gay undertones in that scene, but it was more sad melancholy than love or attraction. Don’t forget showing affection between two males was a lot “friendlier” in roman times than it is now. To me, there was nothing sexual about that moment at all, and it didn’t seem jarring or inappropriate.
And then Tom Hiddleston as Caius Marcius. I have to admit I didn’t really know Coriolanus all that well, but that also meant I could go into the performance without a preconceived idea of who Caius Marcius was in my mind. As always, Tom brought something layered and very impressive to the table. Well, stage He was mesmerizing. His presence on stage commands attention for starters, but what impressed me most was his power. He gives 300% every single moment, in both voice and body. It is an absolute joy to watch and I feel very lucky to have seen it from just a few feet away, from multiple angles. His Caius Marcius is both charming and cold. Both funny and arrogant. Both loving and hateful. I was torn between siding with the man, and rooting for Aufidius throughout the play. By the end, he was so cold, so dismissive of his friends and family, so hateful, that even his last heartfelt scene with his mother, wife and child couldn’t rectify his behavior. He deserved what he got.
Speaking of, the ending is simply fantastic. Josie Rourke, the director, made a few bold choices for this production, and the ending is certainly one of them, but it works. Hanging Caius Marcius upside down from chains and ripping his chest open like they do, with Aufidius letting the blood rain on his face while he mourns, is amazing. It is brutal, but so beautifully done. Just the image literally took my breath away. Both Tom Hiddleston and Hadley Fraser are stunning during that final scene, and I am in awe of Tom Hiddleston for doing that 8 times a week.
And then the final scene, where in Shakespeare’s text Volumnia goes back to Rome and is lauded as a hero. Josie Rourke chose to go a abstract route and simply have Volumnia stand at the back of the stage while her son’s body hangs lifelessly in front of her, as rose peddles fall on her from the sky in mock celebration. Gorgeous, haunting, and perfect.
Long before that though, there’s the sword fight between Caius Marcius and Aufidius, that’s gloriously done. It will never be screen-good (it’s hard to make an almost-hit seem like a real hit on stage), but it is fast, high-paced, believable, brutal and it really shows off Caius Marcius’ savage side. He is a warrior, a killer, and it shows with that scene.
There’s also a shower scene. Now don’t go imagining Tom Hiddleston under a nice spray, shampooing his hair, because this shower scene is torturous, painful, and I winced along right with Caius Marcius. He shakes the blood off him in thick sprays, he cries out in agony as the water hits his deep wounds (which are awesomely done, props to the make-up department!), and there really is nothing sexy about it. At all.
Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as Caius Marcius’ wife didn’t really grip me. Although I suspect that is more because I can’t stand Shakespeare’s tendency to make all women sniveling idiots that do nothing more than cry. Which she did, so objectively I can say she did the part justice. It just didn’t do it for me. But she looked really nice?
The set is amazing and the scene changes are very cleverly done with lighting changes and techno music, really shocking the viewer from one scene into the next. It’s again a bold choice, but it works brilliantly. As an audience, you are not left with thoughts or feelings from the scene before, and you can refocus on the new scene in front of you. I liked it a lot. I also liked that they played “in the round.” There was no fourth wall, no frame around the stage. Hell, the audience was part of the play as the people! It meant that sometimes actors would stand with their backs to you, but again, I liked that. It made me feel like a part of it, not just an onlooker. I was lucky enough to see the play from all possible angles, and it worked every time.
The one time I could look Caius Marcius right in the face (during the scene where Volumnia, Virgillia and Young Marcius come to plead for Rome) got to me most though. It happened when Volumnia, his mother, was pleading with him to show mercy and spare Rome and this his family and friends, and Caius Marcius was tearing up. Anyone who has seen Tom Hiddleston cry knows he does it very quietly, very subtly, and despite me hating Caius Marcius by then, I couldn’t help but tear up too. Props to Tom. I went right back to hating him again though, when he turned away and I remembered what was going on.
All in all, it was an amazing experience to get to see this play live, from up close, multiple times. I made new friends (hi!!!), I got to see extremely talented actors do what they love and cherish, and I was inspired anew.