Theatre Review: Josie Rourke, Coriolanus (Shakespeare)

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Venue: Donmar Warehouse, London, UK
Dates Running: 6th December 2013 – 13th February 2014
Age Rating: 13+*
Overall Rating: ★★★★★
(*NB. Some instances of violence/gore and one of a sexual nature.)
(Spoilers within this review.)

My initial reaction to the play upon stepping out must have been echoed by every other audience member: utter awe. I very much required several hours of reflection to absorb every fantastic, minute detail of what I had just witnessed, which was, in essence, a masterpiece.

My criticisms of the production number but two: primarily that in the opening couple of scenes the acting seemed a little clunky, the Shakespearian verse not quite flowing; but this was rectified very quickly and soon the language was engrossing and fluid as I had expected it would be. The second criticism would be of inconsistency within the costume – while the men seemed kitted out in an AllSaints-esque Roman grunge attire, with leather armour over the top, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Virgilia’s dress and Brutus and Sicinia (Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger)’s outfits seemed somewhat too “modern-office-party” for the era.

That being said, all other visual aspects of the performance were breathtaking. The minimalism of the set allowed the language and the power of Tom Hiddleston’s Caius Martius to really shine; his first entrance in particular was rather show-stopping, bursting brusquely and purposefully through the audience to slap his fellows on the back announcing in a loud, authoritative voice, ‘What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues?’.

In particular, I would praise the technicians who designed the lighting: it truly defines many of the most pivotal scenes in the play, such as Caius Martius’ rage-filled face as he resolves to turn his back on his family and defy the very city he nearly lost his life defending, or his return from the walls of Corioli, cold-eyed and washed with blood. The use of the projection onto the back wall, too, is helpful to emphasise the ever-turning coil within Rome as the tensions mount between the Tribunes and those loyal to Coriolanus. Visually, the power of the ladder, rising imperially from centre-stage and the constant banging and dragging of chairs against the floor, when combined with the crashing, dissonant and war-like music generates a real sense of the fire and battle-hungry nature of the play’s flawed hero. Every special effect was used perfectly; never overdone (although I confess that the fireballs during the taking of Corioli were a little wanton) and only used in emphasis of the brilliant materials already provided in the acting and Shakespeare.

To talk of the acting itself would be to open a window into a universe of praise: every word seemed to flow with passion and verve and the emotional availability of Hiddleston, Fraser and Gatiss drove the play forward. Deborah Findlay was extremely powerful as the mothering, self-righteous Volumnia, holding every scene she stood in with poise, demanding our and certainly Caius Martius’ respect. Mark Gatiss as Menenius was the picture of charm and loyalty: he was in turn cajoling and aggressive when needed, but most compelling of all was his poignant dismissal by Coriolanus in Act V, crying in broken and pained voice, ‘I say to you, as I was said to, Away!’, throwing Caius Martius’ letter to the ground in anguish. The drama of the play was mounted fantastically by Hadley Fraser’s vicious and plotting Tullus Afidius, with his heavy Yorkshire accent and quietly threatening presence. He plays opposite Hiddleston’s Coriolanus with an energy that is palpable from the stage to the very furthest seats at the back of the theatre: both men actually fight, actually fall, and command the small stage with daring acrobatics and passion. Their opposition is played in such a way as to brilliantly bring out their own true nature: as anti-hero and antagonist, the pair define one another, and Rourke has given the perfect direction to create that relationship. Hiddleston himself is as electrifying as ever; emotionally available at all stops, he can go from petulant “Mummy’s boy” to bloodthirsty war-hero to broken outcast in the blink of an eye, and the Shakespearian verse simply trips off his tongue. His height also demands attention, towering above his compatriots as he stands before the Senate, crying hatred to the people. The performance from every actor is incomparable and so brilliant that the audience comes out feeling as if they have fought the same emotional and political war for two and a half hours – although the long running time flies by.

There are a thousand more details I could delve into, exploring every scene most intimately, but it would only serve to dry up my vocabulary. There was so little at fault in the production, and I can only give Rourke, Hiddleston and Gatiss my highest commendations for a utterly breathtaking creation. I could watch it all day, every day until February 8th of next year quite comfortably, and it’s safe to say that the back of my chair never touched me. I simply couldn’t get close enough to the action. Every drop has been squeezed from those five stars and they are most well deserved.

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3 thoughts on “Theatre Review: Josie Rourke, Coriolanus (Shakespeare)

  1. Pingback: Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse | Minerva’s pencil case

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