Tom Hiddleston last night wowed audiences at the London’s Donmar Warehouse with a powerful performance as Shakespeare’s flawed and bloodthirsty hero Coriolanus.
In a blood-lashed, tense production which, unusually for this great warlike tragedy, is played as a chamber piece in the small and intimate theatre space in WC2, Hiddleston is more than up to the job.
In recent years it has been performed by older men like Ian McKellen (then 45) and Ralph Fiennes (49 in the film version) but War Horse star Hiddleston is a lean, youthful fighting machine. Dressed in Doc Martin boots and leather gloves, you can easily believe that he could march into the enemy citadel in the opening scenes and single handedly win in battle before emerging literally drenched in blood.
Hiddleston doesn’t let up on the intensity, but there are some clever touches that hint at the human being beneath the cold, unflinching warrior. At one point he takes a shower in the middle of the stage and winces as his wounds are exposed, the blood lashing off him in a very powerful visual image but one which offers a window into his vulnerability. Yes, he exults in his fighting but he is no mere monster, and, when he is out of combat, shows the fear and naivety of a lost and violently uncompromising man.
The play is pared down and with barely any staging is given a refreshing clarity and strength. The cast spring to life at the beginning of each act, marching abruptly to the front to face the audience before taking their seats grim-faced, for the action. There is also a clever touch in which the backdrop is bedecked with constantly changing graffiti projections; this serves as a kind of fortune’s blackboard and is a more than appropriate metaphor for a dangerous Roman world where heroes like Coriolanus can become zeros very quickly.
One slightly dud directorial touch from Josie Rourke comes in the form of Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius, the arch enemy of our hero who mystifyingly speaks in a strong northern accent that wouldn’t be out of place in Last of the Summer Wine. Presumably under directorial orders, he also overplays the homoeroticism of his exchanges with Coriolanus – something the text does well enough for us.
As Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, the woman who delights in her son’s bloody antics on the battlefield, Deborah Findlay also doesn’t play down the Oedipal charge of her words (although this is done with more subtlety). But she is more than just a study in monstrosity, and her final scene – when she begs for clemency for the Rome that had banished her son, but which seals his fate with his new comrades – is profoundly moving.
She performs this alongside Borgen beauty Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, the woman best known for playing ambitious journalist Katrine Fønsmark in the Danish drama, who here takes on the part of Coriolanus’ put-upon wife Virgilia. It is a pretty luxury casting this, given that she has so few scenes and lines. But when she is called upon she proves a tender, and much needed oasis of anguish, feeling and pity.
I was also impressed by Sherlock and Doctor Who stalwart Mark Gatiss’s Menenius, the wise consul who, in a beautifully modulated performance, provides the voice of reason throughout this play with skill and precision. With other superb turns under his belt – such as his Charles I in the Hampstead Theatre’s play 55 Days last year – Gatiss really is growing in stature as a stage performer.
Coriolanus is on at the Donmar Warehouse until February 8 2014 and will be broadcast on NT Live on 30 January. Box Office: 0844 871 7624