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BY EMMA FORTH
Booking tickets to see Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse was almost as stressful as last minute exam revision. Within 28 minutes of the box office opening the entire run had sold out in a frenzied fight over limited seats. Somewhere in amongst frantic refreshing I managed to secure what felt like a golden ticket, and had I not been on the ball I certainly wouldn’t have been so lucky. It was well worth the stress, though, as Josie Rourke’s Coriolanus proved to be a gripping and intense production with a powerhouse performance from man of the hour, Tom Hiddleston.
When the Volscians threaten Rome, the city calls upon her hero and defender, Coriolanus (Tom Hiddleston). Victorious after almost single-handedly winning the war, he returns but discovers he has enemies at home too as he faces the march of realpolitik and the angry voice of the people. Manipulative senators stir up discontent, famine threatens the city and the people hunger for change.
Since his hugely successful turn in 2011’s Thor as Loki, the God of Mischief, Hiddleston has gone from strength to strength, catching Hollywood’s eye and gaining himself a highly committed fan-base in the process. In a perfectly orchestrated series of promotional tours last year he confirmed his position as a sincerely polite and genuine celebrity, regularly falling into iambic pentameter in interviews and waxing lyrical about the Bard. As one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, Coriolanus may initially seem like an odd choice to mark Hiddleston’s return to the London stage, but he is clearly on truly comfortable ground, relishing immersing himself in the downfall of a questionable hero destroyed by his own nature. From the brutality of the first act – where he portrays Coriolanus as a lean, vicious killing machine – to the moments of tenderness with his wife as he ultimately accepts defeat, Hiddleston has full command of the language, an imposing stage presence and the audience at his mercy. This is not a man who preaches his own beliefs loudly to drown out opposition but rather he deliberately chooses not to listen to the voice of his people – making his ruin ever more tragic. His Coriolanus goes on a deep emotional journey, one that is lifted off the pages of the text by a layered and complex performance highlighting the eponymous hero’s naivety, recklessness and political stubbornness in equal measure.
Much has to be said of the rest of the cast. As Coriolanus’ rival Aufidius, Hadley Fraser unfortunately overplays a northern accent such that it almost seems a parody, and the subtle homoeroticism present in the original text between himself and Coriolanus is unnecessarily exaggerated. However he provides a confident presence on stage and the fight scene between the two leaders is tense and dramatic, both men delivering physically incapacitating blows to their opponent. As Volumnia, the militaristic mother of Coriolanus, Deborah Findlay is a shining example of commandeering maternal pride, creating a detailed and vivid portrait of a woman who hero-worships her son but is both his making and instrumental in his ruin. In a genius stroke of casting Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen takes on the role of Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, but despite several scene-stealing moments she is woefully underused. However more positively, Mark Gatiss is an excellent Menenius and Harry Potter fans will be pleased to spot Dean Thomas (Alfred Enoch) in the role of Titus Lartius.
Rourke has mixed the old with the new: Roman costumes are teamed with Doc Martins, loud blasts of electric music mark scene changes and graffiti is brazenly painted on the city walls. It’s slightly disorientating but given the strengths of the acting it somehow manages to work well enough. The stagecraft is magnificent, with a stark set of twelve chairs and a towering ladder, and impressive lighting allowing for the intense character development to take centre stage. Coriolanus is electrically charged from beginning to end and is fully deserving of the praise it’s received thus far as a unique and unrivaled production that definitely must not be missed.
Although completely sold out, Coriolanus is being broadcast live to cinemas on 30th January – the perfect opportunity to catch this theatrical gem before it disappears.