Coriolanus is set in the early stages of the Roman republic, in the midst of plebeian revolts for grain. Caius Marcius (Tom Hiddleston), nicknamed ‘Coriolanus’ in the course of the play, is a capable and inspiring warrior. He almost single-handedly wins the war against the Volsces, defeating their general, Aufidius (Hadley Fraser). Acclaimed as a hero, Coriolanus is encouraged to run for consul, one of the most important political roles in Rome. But what made Coriolanus such a great soldier – his unwavering pride, his direct, to-the-point speeches – are his fatal flaws as a politician. He is too arrogant, ‘too absolute’: this causes his downfall, leading him to join the Volsces and revolt against Rome.
Coriolanus is a brutal play, with physical fights and visually violent images, such as Hiddleston being drenched in blood for a good part of the play. Rourke gives it a very militaristic and grave tone, creating conflict in different ways throughout. At first, the play is very action-focused, and, as it gets more political, it gradually shifts on power plays to sustain tension, getting at the most personal and intimate point in the end. Some moments relieve the gravity of this harrowing play, but they are not many. They mostly come from Menenius (Mark Gatiss), a father figure for Coriolanus, witty and diplomatic, who shows great emotional depth and political acumen.
This production explores extremely well how it is not his lack of empathy for the lower classes that makes Coriolanus such a bad politician, but his inability to hide it. Pretence is unnatural to him, and he alienates common people by stating what he thinks: he despises them. Far from being a comically bad villain, he is not alone in his contempt for the lower classes: in reality, nobody cares. These aristocrats – even the tribunes, elected to represent the plebs – mock and disrespect the plebeians, and then manipulate them to obtain power. And on their part, the people follow through with the manipulation of the moment almost unquestioningly. Thus, Coriolanus offers an incredibly bleak portrayal of democracy, politics, and power, and it is not difficult to relate it to our contemporary world.
But the human element is always present in this grandiose tragedy about power and the corruption that derives from it. Hiddleston shows us a Coriolanus that is full of contradictions, but also has some genuinely good personal qualities. Coriolanus does not get to deliver as many monologues or soliloquies as other Shakespearean characters, so we can only guess and project our own convictions, but it would be too easy to cast him off as a villain. His intimate, delicate familial connections are constantly shown and explored. In the end, Coriolanus is confronted with a Roman matron (Jacqueline Boatswain), his wife (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), his mother (Deborah Findlay), and his son (Joe Willis), begging him to stop the Volsces’ army. They are deeply emotional scenes, that do not suffer from a drastic tonal change – affection and love between these characters had been shown many times before. A wonderful Findlay, who is a joy to watch in every scene she is in, is every bit as prideful and determined as her fictional son. And Hiddleston’s interactions with his on-scene son and wife are a sweet, quiet performance of love and conflicted emotions.
Osborne’s scenography is simple, with a wall in the background, covered in graffiti that represent the people’s thoughts and needs of the time. The stage is very rarely empty, starting out with a painted red square in the middle of it and some chairs. Such a bare set gives the play a gritty, almost urban feeling. This, with the use of strong whites, blacks, and reds, accompanied the brutal tones of the play quite effectively. More puzzling were the costume choices, with a weird blend between modern and ancient. If it tried to make the connection between our world and theirs more obvious, it was very unsubtle; if not, it is difficult to find another purpose for such choice, other than a bizarre fashion statement.
Coriolanus is a great play, intense and direct in its critique at those in power, but also subtly touching with its portrayal of family and personal relationships.