The Theatreguide.London Review
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Winter 2013-2014
Military hero enters politics, but his open patrician contempt for the electorate leads them to reject him. Outraged, he defects to the enemy and leads their forces against his country. Can he be stopped, and at what cost?
Summarised that way, Shakespeare's Coriolanus has a very contemporary feel, and Josie Rourke's vaguely-modern-dress production – the plebeians are a hoodie-wearing, graffiti-spraying mob, but the soldiers still fight with swords – actually flows more smoothly than many updatings do.
Tom Hiddleston nicely conveys the professional soldier's unique mix of pride and humility, the sense of just doing his job while quietly loving it and his skill at it, and also the almost racist snobbery that makes him unable even to go through the motions of appealing to the populace and instantly outraged and enraged by their rejection.
What he doesn't quite capture is any sense of greatness in the man beyond his military adeptness, any quality that would make his experience tragic in the Shakespearean sense.
What happens to Hamlet or Macbeth or Lear matters because a human being of unusual depth is undergoing a soul-lacerating experience. What happens to this Coriolanus only matters because he's an angry soldier and might kill a lot of people. It's not the same thing.
The potential is there in the play. The climax comes, not in Coriolanus's defection, but when he returns to attack Rome and appeals are made for mercy, most powerfully by his own mother. That scene can take the man into depths of feeling he hasn't known before, but it isn't as strong here as it should be, through some failing or limitation of director and actor.
So, in this lukewarm production it is the secondary figures who register more fully than the hero. Deborah Findlay finds all the power (if not quite all the bloodthirstiness) in the mother who openly declares that she'd rather see her son die in battle than live in civilian peace and who then has to beg him to stop.
Mark Gatiss is an amiable but steely Menenius, Hadley Fraser a wary professional-soldier Aufidius, and Elliot Levy and Helen Schlesinger satisfyingly slimy as the rabble rousers.
This is as clean, clear and easy to follow Coriolanus as you are likely to encounter. It's not particularly striking visually, and it is never really tragic.