Coriolanus is a man of the battlefield. War is a language he speaks with fluency. It is the way he has been raised. But what makes him such a potent force in a time of conflict, a fire-eyed, driven machine of a man, doesn’t translate to the political arena. And this proves his undoing.
Making his return to the Donmar stage, Tom Hiddleston revels in the knottiness and complexity of the character. He last performed here as Cassio in Michael Grandage’s Othello, in which he more than held his own alongside the magnetic, magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor and in many ways eclipsed Ewan McGregor’s Iago. Now – following his Asgardian interlude – he confirms what a capable and engaging stage actor he can be; his performance is one of clarity but it’s also layered: he is proud, courageous, arrogant and vain all at the same time. It’s a very physical performance, he struts and grapples, simmers and winces, and yet he always keeps something back; he won’t give of himself to the people, won’t use his scars as trophies. He bristles at the position into which he has been pushed and fumes at the people in front of whom he must display himself and lay himself bare.
Josie Rourke’s production is an intensely corporeal one, all skin and sweat and blood. It contains some striking imagery: at one point Hiddleston stands before us green-garlanded with blood rivering his face like a red masque of death; later, as the adrenaline of battle dissipates, he flinches and grits his teeth as he bathes the blood of others from his ravaged body. The choreography of the early fight scenes is slick and physical – Coriolanus and his enemy hurl each other about the stage, dashing each other to the floor – but it’s almost too slick, and there are times when you find yourself marvelling at the technical effort involved, at the clank of cutlass on cutlass, at the force with which the punches appear to land, rather than feeling any sense of the rawness and mess of warfare. (Though, at least, when they finally cast their weapons aside and grapple on the floor you do get a glimpse of this).
The cast wear a mixture of leather breastplates and tight black jeans, with neckerchiefs tied at their throats and clothing which is intentionally asymmetric. They wouldn’t look entirely out of place hanging out with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton in the subways of 1980s New York. Later the banished Coriolanus wears a cowl so precise in its raggedness that you can almost see the kiddie scissor marks. And, yes, there’s more than a dash of Loki the trickster in these later scenes, as he twists and infiltrates, smiling his enigmatic smile.
The supporting performances are also very strong. Coriolanus’ formidable mother Voluminia is the kind of woman who swells with pride at the thought of her son being wounded on the battlefield and Deborah Findlay gives a fittingly impassioned performance though she doesn’t have the ice-eyed majesty of Vanessa Redgrave, who played the role in the 2011 film (but, then, who does?). Mark Gatiss is soft-spoken and delicately paternal as Coriolanus’ advisor Menenius and the scene of his rejection is one of the play’s most moving, while Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen does what she can with a role that says so much with silence, as the cast-aside wife.
The back wall of the stage is strewn with graffiti (of the actual, spray-painted kind) to which more is added digitally, the slogan “grain at our own price” multiplying and spreading as the soundtrack thumps and pounds. This feels like a misstep, a half-hearted way of insisting on the play’s ‘now-ness’ while also undermining it, and, much like the choice of costumes, making it feel oddly dated. The sense of hunger and want which underscores the text and its exploration of power and the reasons people lead don’t really need to be underlined quite so heavily.
In the end these things don’t really get in the way of what is an engaging production. Hiddleston is a compelling central figure and the visuals are very often memorable, but there’s a gloss and polish to it all, a sense of engineering which subtly undercuts its potency.
National Theatre Live will broadcast the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus on 30th January 2014.