National Theatre at Home review: Coriolanus
James R | On 04, Jun 2020
“You common cry of curs!” yells Tom Hiddleston partway through Coriolanus. He’s cursing a whole town of people, but in the 2013 Donmar Warehouse production, he’s actually shouting at a tiny room of people on a stage barely bigger than a dining table. It’s a remarkably intimate production, one that takes its cue from its location – and its leading man – and strips everything down to something riveting in its ruthless brutality.
Hiddleston, who has found worldwide fame by playing trickster villain Loki in Marvel’s gargantuan cinematic universe, is perfectly cast as Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman general whose tragic career would almost be sympathetic if it weren’t caused by his own intransigence and naivety. Stubborn and proud, he’s great in battle, but terrible at court, unable to play the consulate game or woo the public with his words. He’s chewed up and spat out by the political system – a political system that is busy trying to quell the uprising of a population starved by inequality.
Director Josie Rourke paints the stage – literally – with their discontent, and pens her cast in a small, confined ring that leaves their every move under close scrutiny. Walls of chairs separate the players from the audience, representing crowds and battlefields, while the conflict when it comes is a scorching mix of fireworks and ladders stretching up into the dark space above – a reminder of the easy fall from hero to zero.
The cast that populate this fishbowl-scale theatre expand its horizons with convincing, fleshed-out performances, from Deborah Findlay as Coriolanus’ controlling, military mother to Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as his resilient, gracious wife, Virgilia. Between them both, Mark Gatiss steals scenes as Menenius, the politician whose silver-tongued ways make sure that Shakespeare’s verse feels like the most natural, modern speech in the world.
But it’s impossible to take your eyes of Hiddleston, who takes us from Coriolanus’ fall into favour and back out of it with magnetic authority, his eventual partnership with nemesis Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) easy to root for. The intensity of their bond is matched by Hiddleston’s blistering line delivery, but it’s a physical performance more than a verbal one, as Rourke pauses the action to watch him shower mid-stage, his wounds turning the water red as it drips on to the floor. By the time his fate has been hung out to dry, the sight is so immediate you’ll be on the edge of your seat. This is lean, mean, visceral theatre.
Coriolanus is available on National Theatre at Home as a £7.99 rental or as part of a £9.98 monthly subscription. For more on National Theatre at Home and how it works, click here.