Ode to a city of kites and crows



MY foe, my brother: Tallus Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) with Caius Martius Coriolanus (Tom Hiddleston). Photograph courtesy

THE UNCOMFORTABLE MYTH which sees a greatly loved hero get vilified and banished with the ebbs and flows of societal energies is one of the streams of narrative that infuses Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. But like his works of the ilk of King Lear, there is so much more in it that it grabs an understanding of humanity as you may know it, and spills its multitudes of contents in complicated and gruesome directions. Under the hand of Josie Rourke and with Tom Hiddleston in the lead, this production is truly everything.

Sans witches or ghosts, humour or nuance to lighten its load, it’s a relentless tale of the values of honour and you might find yourself working quite hard to remember who is on which side as the work opens, riddled as it is with angry protest. Replete with gestures such as the painting of a red square on the stage, and a little later in the work, a black one, which sees the eponymous hero grounded, the production’s set is riddled with graffiti and an air of the outrage of a citizenry. Stepladders and chains form a large part of the props and the cast is choreographed to sweep scenes together and move furniture as part of their roles. The effect of this is filmic. Coupled with dramatic music from the pen of Michael Bruce, the work is at once chilling and exciting. Featuring costumes that give a dystopian air to a mix of Elizabethan and modern garb, the work is in entirety shatteringly legible.

But Hiddleston’s immense skill in reprising this deeply complex role aside, this production is clustered with exceptionally fine casting decisions and cameo performances. Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, the mum of Coriolanus himself, sears the narrative with her heartrending presence, as she articulates the horror of a son whose honour is in doubt. And then there is Menenius (Mark Gatiss). This seasoned performer encapsulates the presence of a mentor to a leader and a politician with a heart with a credibility that makes you love him. You know he’s made dodgy decisions. You know he isn’t flawless, but as an individual, he’s put together with the grit and wit of a real person, and in every scene where he’s present, you cannot not notice him.

The tribune of Sicinius (Helen Schlesinger) and Brutus (Elliot Levey) operate as a kind of Greek chorus. They’re the trouble-makers in the context, voicing opinions and planting seeds of doubt and spite in places where they would be most fertile. They’re like a couple of snakes, holding their physical decorum intact, while their presence poisons the status quo.

But this is not to forget Coriolanus’s adversary, Tallus Aufidius (Hadley Fraser). There is a moment in the give and take between these two Roman warriors that you may forget your knowledge of how the play ends. In the feint and threat of a seasoned fighter taken by surprise, you, in the audience are affrighted too, not really able to anticipate what will happen.

Finally, there is the child (Joe Willis). This small boy, cast as the son of Coriolanus, has few lines but a complicated bearing. And like a charm, this round-eyed boy with a protruding tummy, grabs the goosebump registry of the work and sends it through the roof.

Without doubt, Coriolanus is a hard work to watch: it is violent and loud and bloody and frightening. But conjoined with all these spectacular theatrics, it plunges you into the heart of this timeless tale in such a way that you actually expect death to occur onstage and you, too, are swept in the anger and uncertainty of political upheaval. This is another National Theatre at Home gift that you cannot afford to miss.

  • Coriolanus is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Josie Rourke for the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London, in 2014. It is performed by Jacqueline Boatswain, Peter de Jersey, Alfred Enoch, Deborah Findlay, Hadley Fraser, Mark Gatiss, Tom Hiddleston, Elliot Levey, Rochenda Sandall, Helen Schlesinger, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Mark Stanley, Dwane Walcott and Joe Willis. Produced and presented by the National Theatre Live at Home, it features creative input by Lucy Osborne (production design), Mark Henderson (lighting), Emma Laxton (sound), Andrzej Goulding (videography), Michael Bruce (composer), Jonathan Watkins (movement), Richard Ryan (fight choreography), Alastair Coomer and Vicky Richardson (casting) and Tim van Someren (direction for screen). It broadcasts for free until June 11 on the National Theatre’s youtube channel

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