PLEBS AND POLITICS, SAVAGE AND STARK
The plebs are angry, scrawling demands for grain on the bare back wall, modern in hoodies and jeans. They reckon the senators get all the good stuff. Smooth-talking Menenius (Mark Gatiss) elegantly expounds the metaphor of the belly which seems to steal the food but actually supports the limbs and brain. Unimpressed, the Roman mob insist on two of their own as Tribunes, a fledgling democracy.
But there’s a war on with the Volscii, and Caius Martius Coriolanus has come home a bloodstained hero, to be acclaimed Consul. Tom Hiddleston takes centre stage: lean , hawkish, leathered, arrogant: accustomed to urge his troops by taunting them, he promptly demonstrates that soldierly command does not necessarily make a peacetme leader. He insults the “beastly plebeians…crows that peck the eagles..rotten breath of fetid marsh” (many a minister must envy this refreshing frankness) . The people’s tribunes (Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levey, beautifully smug) banish him.
Retorting “I banish YOU!” he heads to Antium to offer his services or his bared throat to his former enemy Aufidius (Hadley Fraser). Who, in a remarkable homoerotic moment diluted by “Know thou first, I love the maid I married” lavishly embraces and recruits him to sack Rome. Fellow Volscii (who conveniently all talk Yorkshire) look on stunned: for there are merciful moments in Josie Rourke’s thrilling, headlong, tragedy-driven production where she allows us a gust of laughter.
After Phyllida Lloyd’s fine all-woman Julius Caesar, the Donmar once again offers raw, political Shakespeare proving that an intimate space can contain epic savagery and the fate of empires. The staging is simple, fast-moving, the main props chairs, but has dramatically clever moments. Hiddleston in the first act stands beneath a shower of water wincing as his many wounds are struck, an evocation of the reality of pain often missing in gung-ho warrior depictions. Great moments too for Mark Gatiss’ Menenius, watching helpless as his friend and protegé ruins himself, murmuring “He is grown from man to dragon”.
But the tremendous thing about this play, not performed as often as other Shakespeariana, is the powerful role of Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia: ferocious, devoted, proud of every scar but warning “submit you to the people’s voices!”. Deborah Findlay beautifully plays it, allowing absurdities in her martial enthusiasm but stripping her heart bare in desperation at the final cathartic scene when, with his wife and son, she must beg him not to destroy the city.
The hero, famously enigmatic with barely any soliloquy, sometimes seems just a ruthless hard-bodied column of offended pride and nihilism, snarling “Wife, mother, child, I know not”. Only at last does he move towards a suicidal redemption. Hiddleston carries this strange stark part with a frozen damaged dignity, thawing only with his mother : he and Findlay create thrilling moments of mutuality, the invisible bond crackling between them.
Another triumph, then. But I must murmur that ever since Sam Mendes hung Kevin Spacey’s Richard III up by the ankles at the Old Vic, we are getting tired of up-endings: this season alone chaps dangled head-down in Mojo, Let The Right One In, and now this. Don’t want to go back to the monotony of the classic “RSC Armpit Death” sword thrust, but it is time to suspend suspensions.
box office 0844 871 7624 to 8 feb.
Production sponsors: Radisson Blu Edwardian / C and S Sherling. Ongoing partner: Barclays.
Production will be on 300 screens nationwide on 30 January http://www.ntlive.com