Review by Carol Rocamora

For every new era, there’s a Shakespeare play that enlightens our understanding of the times. 

Such is the case with Coriolanus, the Bard’s brutal revenge tragedy that resonates so powerfully – and painfully – in our own politically fraught period.   Thanks to the new National Theatre At Home series, we’re given the precious opportunity to see Josie Rourke’s 2014 revival at the Donmar Warehouse streaming on-line, featuring a starry Tim Hiddleston in the title role.

Here’s the story in brief.  Set in ancient Roman times, Caius Martius, a charismatic leader and warrior, defeats the ferocious Volscians in a bloody battle.  He returns home where he is hailed as a hero, promoted to Consul, and named “Coriolanus”.  Meanwhile, famine and poverty threaten Rome – but Coriolanus has neither patience nor compassion for the sufferings of the people. Provoked by Tribunes, the angry population turns on the homecoming hero, calling him “enemy of the people” and banishing him.

In a stunning turnaround, Coriolanus declares “I banish YOU!” to his countrymen.  He leaves Rome and heads straight to the Volscian leader Aufidius, his mortal enemy, offering his partnership in revenge against his own city.  Astonished, Aufidius nonetheless embraces this shocking proposal.  But as this unlikely pair approach Rome to attack it, Coriolanus’s wife and mother appear at the gates to beg him to stand down.   Coriolanus acquiesces, whereupon Aufidius turns on him and murders him in one of the most violent spectacles I’ve seen on stage (gory details below).

In Coriolanus, we see aspects of some of our own political leaders (megalomania, paranoia, disdain for the masses, switching of alliances, betrayals), as well as the current issues of unpredictable mob mentality and shifting public opinion.

But the marvel of Josie Rourke’s production is the unexpected empathy you feel for Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus (an actor impossible not to admire in any role, in my opinion).  Rourke’s focus is on the family drama – in particular, the devastating scenes between Hiddleston’s Coriolanus and Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother.  The passionate pride she feels for her son’s achievements and the agonizing pain she feels upon his subsequent betrayal are overwhelming, making their final confrontation almost unbearable to watch.  “O Mother, Mother, what have you done?” he asks, when she declares she’ll return to Rome with his wife and child and await being slaughtered by her own son if he pursues his revenge plan with the Volscians.  “You have won a happy victory for Rome, “ Coriolanus continues, “but for your son, believe it, o believe it, most dangerously with him you have prevailed, if not most mortal to him.  But let it come.” 

Hiddleston, an admirable actor of princely stature and agility, speaks Shakespeare’s language with such clarity and ease that it sounds utterly contemporary.  Deborah Findlay is formidable as his proud and adoring mother, and the lovely Danish actress Birgitte Hjort Sorenson is striking as his wife Virgilia.  Mark Gatiss is steadfast as Coriolanus’s surrogate father figure and loyal supporter, and Hadley Fraser’s fierce Aufidius is a formidable rival. 

Josie Rourke directs the skilled ensemble with fluidity and theatricality on Lucy Osborne’s stark set, featuring an upstage wall with graffiti and a row of chairs where the ever-present actors sit.   Emma Laxton’s sound effects between scenes – featuring angry voices, drums, percussions, and electronic sounds – are stunning.   In the final scene, Coriolanus is strung up and gored, and the blood that pours from his body and drenches Aufidius’s face is a horrifying sight.

Politics is a bloody business. But there’s no need to remind us of that in these turbulent times….

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Josie Rourke at the Donmar Warehouse (2014), now streaming on the National Theatre At Home website.