Making enthralling theater out of one of Shakespeare’s best-known titles is one thing. It’s an achievement of an altogether higher order to take the austerely forbidding “Coriolanus” — an argumentative tragedy discussing the demands of politics and the power of the people — and turn it into a theatrical triumph. But that’s exactly what Donmar Warehouse a.d. Josie Rourke has done. Thanks to an ideally dovetailed ensemble led by a scorching Tom Hiddleston, tension builds, fills the theater and never flags throughout an all-consuming evening.
The 250-seat Donmar is an intriguingly confined space in which to stage a play springing from the idea of a man in opposition to the crowd. Having almost single-handedly won the war against the enemy Volscians, victorious Coriolanus (Hiddleston) returns to Rome where he is to become Consul. To do so he must accede to the crowd’s demands to show his wounds and, as he sees it, beg for their approbation — an idea he finds abhorrent. Whipped up by manipulative senators, the people grow increasingly enraged until Coriolanus’s arrogance overcomes him. Banished from Rome and his family, he fatally joins the opposition headed by rival General Tullus Aufidius (Hadley Fraser).
On the stage, bare but for a stark single row of twelve chairs and a towering ladder casting a deep metaphorical shadow, Coriolanus’s young son Martius (Joe Wills at the performance reviewed) patiently outlines a diamond-shaped acting area on the floor in blood-red paint. A sign of things to come, it’s also an immediate indication of the production’s tight focus which, from the very opening scene, yields dividends.
Rourke’s cast is successfully lean with just the four named citizens skillfully deployed about Lucy Osborne’s set to conjure crowd scenes. The pitch of the crowd’s hunger-fuelled anger — and the mounting hostilities between them and proud Coriolanus — leads most productions towards shouting. But rather than the generalized rage and loss of control that shouting creates, Rourke maintains tension by keeping a lid on everything. As a result, characters’ reasonings are unusually clear and the all-important urgency and dramatic momentum is sustained.
That’s epitomized by Hiddleston’s performance. Out goes roaring military might, the thunderous soldier, and in comes the diamond-bright gleam of attack-ready energy. Yet from the few tiny glimpses of the power he’s keeping damped down, the threat of what Coriolanus will unleash remains ever-present, adding immeasurably to his all-important status. Not blowing his stack too early makes him appear far more dangerous and exciting to watch.
Furthermore, Hiddleston fascinatingly makes Coriolanus a man who chooses not to listen rather than someone shouting too loud to hear. With his thought processes so legible, his arrogance becomes less of a foregone conclusion and, therefore, properly tragic.
The control of stagecraft is everywhere apparent, not least in the added, silent scene in which Coriolanus, released from public display and privately exhausted from battle, stands alone. Caught center-stage in Mark Henderson’s ferocious white light, water from high above the set surges down onto Hiddleston’s bloody body, spraying into the dark like sparks off steel. A magnificent image in its own right, it’s actually making audiences see and feel the character’s brutally defiant self-determination.
The control of transitions — metallic stings in a threatening soundscape, fleet video imagery maintaining danger throughout — allow Rourke to place long-held moments of high drama arising from detailed character work.
In the scene where Coriolanus surrenders to Tullus Aufidius, she makes tension rocket by adding a soldier with dagger drawn in full view of all but to Coriolanus, the soldier stealthily ever-ready to knife the intruder at the slightest flicker of command from Fraser’s unblinking eyes. From there, the extended, moment-by-moment, heart-in-mouth calibration of the two men’s capitulation from foe to friend becomes simply riveting.
Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger’s double-act of crisply dressed, knowing schemers Brutus and gender-switched Sicinius brings welcome laughs to the plotters, while the late dismissal of Menenius is all the more touching for Mark Gatiss’s preceding superciliousness.
Coriolanus’s match, however, is his mother Volumnia, brought to coruscating life by Deborah Findlay. Her commanding maternal pride, held beautifully in opposition by Birgitte Hjort Sørenson as Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia, is both the making and the ruin of her son, a duality constantly made plain by Findlay, who positively burns with zeal. In the second half, rendered here as a staunchly fierce chamber drama, Findlay’s laser-like impassioned plea to him to spare Rome holds the audience rapt.
The combination of Hiddleston’s work in “Thor” plus worldwide cinema screenings in January 2014 (via the National Theater’s NT Live program) will boost audiences. Traditionally, this Shakespeare tragedy is more admired than enjoyed, but a production of such distilled power — Rourke’s finest achievement to date at the Donmar, which she had led since last year — is highly likely to change that.