by Kristin Battestella
After having seen the 2011 film version of Coriolanus starring director Ralph Fiennes, I was quite keen to watch this 2013 stage production of Coriolanus presented by the Donmar Warehouse and broadcast internationally through the National Theatre Live program in 2014. Unfortunately, it would seem I live in the uncultured sticks, as during its initial live capture run, Coriolanus never came to a cinema near me – until this fall's encore season that is!
Roman general Caius Martius (Tom Hiddleston) single handedly captures the town of Corioli from his Volsican enemy Aufidius (Hadley Frasier). Now coined Coriolanus, Martius returns to Rome where his mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay) and long time friend Senator Menenius (Mark Gatiss) urge him to become consul. Tribunes Brutus (Elliot Levey) and Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger), however, use Martius' crass exterior and poor opinions of the common people against him, resulting in his banishment from Rome. Will Coriolanus ally with Aufidius and march on his former homeland or do his familial ties to Rome hold a fatal influence?
Film versus Stage Design
Where Fiennes used his adaptation as a modern, war-torn, political commentary, director Josie Rourke presents her Shakespeare in a slightly abstract morale space, creating a classical feeling like Clash of the Titans where the gods place the players in the arena as though they were mere chess pieces. While the costume design may be generic and modern, precious few props leave nothing but the intimate sword fighting, arguments, escalation, and turnabout drama to tell the tale. Brief, slightly loud music covers the simple set and scene changes, but Coriolanus uses the small Donmar Warehouse staging to its advantage with shadow and lighting schemes – color lights differentiate locales, smoke fills the battles, and spotlights or darkness are used for surprise character entrances and exits. Graffiti painted on the wall and sparse background projections or graphics accentuate dialogue points while the central stage ladder is both used in battle scenes and stands symbolic of the social highs and lows. Boxes are painted on the floor to define where action takes place – or where one may stand inside to be judged – and the showering onstage multitasks by shrewdly saving time and washing the set clean as it reveals the painful bloodshed. Superb pops of red on the wall, floor, and the actors themselves create visual emphasis alongside flares, falling flower petals, and scarlet ballot papers littering Coriolanus with more representative details. The cast moves about the stage, adding more treats for the eye to follow, and the National Theatre Live presentation is well edited for the cinema. We see the cameras around the stage at times, but the machines doing the magic don't feel intrusive thanks to the varying up close shots, zooms, and camera angles they provide. Coriolanus is not one unmoving videotape, nor do we need that type of pulled back, full view of the Donmar. Rather than frame the scope of the production, the lense here slowly closes in on the only thing that matters: the people upon the stage.
Granted, Fiennes' Coriolanus film has more star power name recognition, and it is a treat to see such players in real life warzones chewing on meaty political commentary and modern media statements. Here, however, the taut ensemble is ready to race – this Coriolanus is a contest and the audience is waiting to see whose ruthless will be the victor. Sure, most viewers may already know who the eponymous loser is, but that doesn't deflate the packed drama. Even understandably condensed and paired down with altered scenes, a lot happens on this Donmar stage, and Coriolanus is a well paced, fast moving three hours. It's amazing how much can be said in one scene, let alone how much heavy can happen from one minute to the next. The public is so fickle amirite, and this squeeze happens quickly. Martius, his family, the Volsci, the Roman Senate, tribunes that rise or fall on the people's whim – nobody really wins in Coriolanus. Without the contemporary spoon-fed simplicity to which the audience is accustomed, all that remains is the emotion and corruption spearheading the dramatis personae toward the inevitable. By second the half of play, we don't even need the sparse stage dressings to be steeped in what's happening. The lights themselves close in on our protagonist, dwindling the the stage space until there is one lone chair and nowhere else to go. Ultimately, it isn't quite fair to compare the movie and this play edition, as the former relies on multiple film takes over weeks at a time with crew to perfect an overall encapsulation. That's tough enough, but it's amazing how here Coriolanus was performed day in and day out for weeks in its entirety. On the spot, no mistakes – there's nothing on which to rely but the ensemble's words, once again proving that intensity can be found just by people observing other people in a dramatic situation, no bombastic and CGI needed for the bravo here.
The Man of the Hour
Well then! Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers, Crimson Peak) is hefty, muscular, and unrestrained as Caius Martius Coriolanus. He bangs on a feeble pedestal to plead his case, spits when he shouts – I swear I could hear his leather gloves flex as he squeezed his fists. There are no over the top theatrics, and Hiddleston remains commanding with an unblinking, award winning, ticking clock fervor. He throws chairs, climbs ladders, is dosed in water and blood – the stage is his and he uses every element of it to craft this imposing, unlikable figure. Hiddleston is loud and intense but also whispers, becoming incredibly emotional and moved to manly tears whether he is on the dark stage near alone in brief soliloquy or surrounded by the ensemble in mock battle. Martius is svelte and war fit but a brute in his speech and mannerisms, unaware that the Senate is not the right time or place for his gruff attitude and hatred of lesser people breathing his air. Like Gretzky or Jordan, he could not base himself to lesser athletes' levels even if he were so inclined. He does not comprehend why he would try to be anything other than the soldier he is or play a political game to appease others and instead mocks public customs. Ironically, it's almost heroic how he keeps to his warped convictions – Martius is not without kindness when it comes to his men and an enemy that helped him. He appreciates battlefield respect, and although the audience sees the pain of his wounds and showering cleanse, he is correct in saying that we mere civilians can't understand what goes on in war. Unfortunately, any such truisms won't stop those more shrewd from manipulating this warrior and his weaknesses as an inept politician with no people skills.
From Loki to Henry V, several of Hiddleston's previous characters have had “daddy issues,” but our titular, one man, city destroying machine is a whipped and easily swayed mama's boy who does what he is told. “Theirs not to reason why...” and when Coriolanus does play beyond his political means, indeed it's “do or die” as Tennyson says. Hiddleston spends nearly half the play with one arm in a sling, wonderfully symbolic of how his lack of a political silver tongue ties one hand behind his back. They all twist his arm – the unlucky left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Wrong in his arrogance as he is, once Martius is used for everyone else's gain and kicked to the curb for sticking to his guns, his brought low and made humble flaws become relatable, even humorous in this ironic turn from famous and strong to ignoble nobody. His body itself parallels the stage's graffiti and visual design– his wounds written upon him in battle again and again. Hiddleston stands back against this wall out of the spotlight until needed for Martius to be hosed down and made clean only to be bloodied again. This Coriolanus gives precious few character asides to tell us Martius' inner feelings, but thanks to this dynamite, nuanced performance from Hiddleston, we see Caius break. The audience doesn't blame him for embracing his emotional realizations and finally having a heart – even if this vulnerability is his final detriment. Whether he deserves his fate or not, in the end, does it really matter? Everyone wants a piece of Martius, and the wounds these dishonest wordsmiths give him are more fatal than his hard earned battle scars. In both senses of the word, he is a tool used and abused at the whim of others for bloodshed – be it enemy blood or his own. Whew. Hiddleston delivers an almost religious and Shakespeare made flesh overture in Coriolanus, but my goodness those fruit in the face zingers must have stung!
The Women in his Life
While Hiddleston may be the most famous player in Coriolanus and certainly makes his case for a captivating, blood-and-guts, one man show, Deborah Findlay (Cranford) comes close to stealing the play as Martius' vicariously living through him mother Volumnia. This self styled Madonna feels Rome's power via her son – a tall order that may be over the top for some viewers unaccustomed to theatre exaggerations. However, Volumnia's spectacle fits and spells are also intentionally emphasized to force her mighty son to kneel, cower, and tremble in her wake. Volumnia takes over every situation and assures her will be done, often shrewdly by planting the seed and letting her opposition feel they hold the decision. A husband, Cauis' father, or other customary Roman male relation is never mentioned, implying a lone woman suffering as she bore this son, rising him up to battle glory as an extension of herself and her name. Volumnia would be Martius' everything as he is hers – a heavy maternal hand and one of Shakespeare's stronger written women because she in many ways rules with a masculine fist over her son. Martius bleeds for Rome, but she has already bled for him and never misses an opportunity to recall her womanly superiority and womb trump card.
Volumnia is revered as having saved Rome and receives all the recognition she desired, but its bemusing that there's been some historical confusion over the similar names of Coriolanus' wife and mother – almost as if they were one woman, not two. Volumnia keeps her son's marriage stunted, almost as if she is in the bed between them. She uses Virgilia to soften Martius as needed, grooming them both and controlling her daughter-in-law like an approved surrogate. Volumnia schools her grandson, and as written, Vrigilia doesn't have much to do but speak when spoken to, assure Martius' lineage, and sew. Fortunately, Rourke uses the silent staging to her advantage, placing Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (Borgen) outside the painted square but in view during Volumnia's plots. She's listening from the shadows, showing how Virgilia isn't always content that Volumnia is first and she is second in Cauis' life. Her tenderness and soft, household balance shouldn't be an afterthought or deemed as inferior to her mother-in-law's marital intrusion. Sorensen matches the cast with her look and poise, and again the astute play movements often have Findlay in the background of the frame – the third figure between Caius and Virgilia. Unfortunately, these ladies have opposite interests for Martius, and only one will have her way.
Elder statesmen Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) as Senator Menenius and Peter de Jersey (Broadchurch) as the Roman commander Cominius likewise add brevity and staunch countermeasures in Coriolanus. Each father figure has his turn to levy on Martius' shoulder, with Menenius playing politician as a devilishly dressed whimsical gentleman and Cominius the loyal battlefield angel. Unfortunately, Martius heeds neither of them and pays a hefty price thanks to Hadley Frasier (Phantom of the Opera) as the Volscian leader Aufidius. Frasier doesn't have as much to do as the rest of the ensemble and is smaller in stature than Hiddleston but he is no less dangerous in his words or blows. There's a different energy to the Volsci scenes, and Aufidius looks ready to pounce on Coriolanus as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Martius took his sword in battle, emasculates him, and Aufidius bides his time until their rematch, toying with his prey like the lion in the arena. Aufidius is both a political and military leader who knows how to succeed – unlike Martius, who mocks commoners so easily yet fails to see when someone else is messing with him. When Martius makes Aufidius look bad, lets his guard down, and asks his enemy to advise him on what to do...Whelp! It's interesting how we look back to Shakespeare or the likes of The Tudors for our scandal and drama, yet The Bard himself looked back into earlier history to find the political parallels of his tragic “Roman Plays.” Five hundred years or fifteen hundred and have we learned our lesson yet? Nope.
Love to hate muckrakers – er tribunes Elliot Levey (Da Vinci's Demons) as Brutus and Helen Schlesinger (The Way We Live Now) as Sicinia are a lot like Volumnia in many ways. Both the powerful opposing women wear purple, however the tribunes' calculating is not with one man, but a dangerous game with the people of Rome. Their ploy manipulates the public into betraying Coriolanus, and their politicking happens not on the battlefield but inside the increasingly smaller senate space. Martius is literally boxed in upon their stage with nothing but speeches in this match, and he is not up to par compared to these deceptive wordsmiths. Their orchestrate from the back underhanded has little backbone compared to commanders who lead the charge, and the tribunes can't just press the reset button when Martius' turnabout goes wrong for Rome. Coriolanus is already a political play, and recent global events in the weeks before this encore only add more dimension to Shakespeare's perennial examination on the state of affairs. At times, the multiple roles played by Jacqueline Boatswain (Hollyoaks), Mark Stanley (Game of Thrones), Roschenda Sandall, and Dwane Walcott can be confusing due to subtle costume changes or a dialogue delay in whether they are Roman or Volsican. Fortunately, this small ensemble necessity also works in the play's favor, for indeed the highs and lows on both sides of conflicts are ultimately one and the same. Although Alfred Enoch (Harry Potter) appears as Lartius largely in the first half of Coriolanus before disappearing, it might have been neat to see him play both this Roman and the Volsican lieutenant to hit that common soldier point home. Lastly, I must also applaud Coriolanus for the colorblind and gender-blind casting of this production. It's sad and I'm sorry to say, but simply put, we don't see that type of equality in the mainstream industry stateside.
A Theatre Experience
For this encore showing I attended, there was a group of girls in the back of the cinema who kept laughing at the wrong time. Whether that was due to a Hiddleston effect, lack of Shakespearean comprehension, or perhaps both, I don't know. There was also a loud pretentious young couple who announced that they were going to carry on their conversation in Italian – presumably just because they could and wanted everyone to know it? Though at a small independent venue, the showing was filled to near capacity with a slightly older, mature, educated audience who did chuckle at the right Shakespeare puns, and it is nicer to be amid an intellectual audience for a change instead of the increasingly popcorn bombastic. The downloadable audio commentary featuring some of the cast and crew is also an interesting addition to Coriolanus, and it's neat that new exclusive content could still be added to make the encore screenings even more special. I completely understand the National Theatre Live's goals in wanting to bring people to a regular movie “theater” to expand interest in “theatre” and it is a catch-22 to release Coriolanus on DVD and risk losing this unique combination cinema experience. However, I do believe that interest in National Theatre Live's programs would be maximized with some sort of free video content or streaming subscriptions and official online availability. Instead of wasting time with trailers, a short behind the scenes for Coriolanus and a history of the Donmar Warehouse lead into the play and there is an intermission half way through for audiences to break without interfering with the show. What's this time to cater to a moviegoer's mind and body? Pfft big blockbusters packing in the most screenings possible don't have time for that!
I don't often review theatre programs like Coriolanus because most special presentations such as this don't come to my area and traveling far isn't always an option. Must I spend two days in New York City every time I want to see a three hour play? I'd love to see the National Theatre Live's Frankenstein presentation, and I wish I could see another production directed by Rourke or more from the Donmar Warehouse. This is a lot to take in live, granted, and Coriolanus should probably be seen more than once if possible – thrice with the commentary. Coriolanus asks an audience usually dulled by their entertainment to instead infuse our time with history and tragedy. In an era where billion dollar record breakers rule the box office each year, Coriolanus proves there is still room for quality alternative cinema and innovated outside the box drama. Amen!