Posted by Sari
Thanks to Covid-19, National Theatre has kindly been putting up its NT-live performances on YouTube once a week and keeping them up for a week. As they have not so far released any of NT-live plays on DVD, this is a great opportunity to catch those you might have missed. In 2013 NT live broadcasted Josie Rourke’s Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s last plays and his last Roman play. It proved immensely popular – a fact that baffled many of the reviewers who apparently had been living under a rock and did not know how popular Tom Hiddleston is.
Donmar is an interesting space: it hosts a little over 200 viewers and the stage is surrounded by audience on three sides. Not a space you first think of when you think of a play were both battle scenes and crowd scenes are sort of central. It is impossible to know how well the production worked at the theatre, but the direction of the telecast was thoughtful and did manage to capture something of Donmar’s intimacy.
Shakespeare’s Roman plays are the category of plays I am least familiar, and I admit going to my bookshelf and digging up Alexander Leggatt’s “Shakespeare’s Political Drama” to ground myself. For the Roman plays are intensely political plays and Coriolanus is no exception. It tells the tale of C/Gaius Martius Coriolanus, a roman general who early in the republican period defeats Rome’s enemies. He is hailed as a hero and a saviour and is expected to take his place among the roman political elite. But has quite intense contempt towards the plebs, and thus his political career is shot down both by his inability to curry votes to be elected a Consul, and by the machinations of the people’s tribunes who exploit his actions. He is banished after speaking against the republic, and then decides to go serve his sworn enemy Aufidius whom he defeated earlier. When Aufidius and Coriolanus are about to conquer Rome, the senate sends his wife and mother to plead for the city. He relents and then is killed Aufidius who sees this, reasonably enough, as a betrayal.
Coriolanus is a difficult play mainly because the title character is so unlikeable. His virtue is military virtue, he is cut off from humanity, from body politic: he is the sword of Rome, not its sword arm. His self-sufficiency and his contempt for the political system of his city is tempered only by his love and subservience to his mother Volumnia, who as a proper Roman matron, has distilled his son with martial virtues. And the text does not give any room for his interior life, there are no monologues to let us understand him better. Thus the audience is left with a character with unlikeable opinions, too much honesty and too little empathy.
A good contrast is Henry V, a play Coriolanus is often compared with. Henry outside of Harfleur and before Agincourt rallies his men to battle by inspiring them, by effacing the class distinctions between them. Coriolanus instead of mocks and try to force his men to attack, and when that does not work, he goes at it alone. And there is no equivalent of “upon the king” -monologue. Henry knows King is a role he plays for the good of his kingdom (and himself), Coriolanus petulantly refuses to play anything.
Coriolanus is also a very embodied play, the metaphors of body politic dominate the discussion on roman society, Coriolanus wounded body is itself a bargaining chip in the election, and the bloody nature of war on bodies is front and centre. In this production’s final scene Aufidius follows Coriolanus taunt/command “Cut me to pieces” by stringing him up like a pig and slicing him up. His blood drips on Aufidius as the latter speaks the last words. In the more priavate sphere, the male bonding between Aufidius and Coriolanus is textually tinged with homoeroticism, and even Coriolanus’ Mother sort of wishes of being his wife instead of his mother.
Rourke’s production does manage to hold attention with pretty symbolic sets, fourth wall breaking stage direction and especially with excellent acting. Hiddleston is better Coriolanus than he was Hal in Hollow Crown where I thought his performance worked in the large public scenes but was little lacklustre when he was depicting Hal/Henry’s interior life. Maybe that is the reason his style works well for Coriolanus who has problems with the idea of a public and private self. Hiddleston’s diction is clear, he has no problems with play’s physicality, and even manages to make the fanservice shower scene integrate with the play. On the quieter scenes he is equally good, and the scene with Volumnia at the end is excellent. In other roles, Mark Gatiss as Menenius does good job as the jolly patrician currying the favour of the citizens and I especially and bit surprisingly liked Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia, who in the play is pretty much side-lined by the relationship between Volumnia and Coriolanus.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, and even with pretty radical cuts this performance takes over three hours. If a cinecast can hold your attention so long with no problem, it is undoubtably a success. And Donmar’s Coriolanus does that.