Since 2009, National Theatre Live has been sharing its outstanding theatre productions with audiences across the world, providing those of us unable to experience the shows live in London with an opportunity to enjoy the best of what the British theatre has to offer in local cinemas or on DVD. With its recent production of Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, National Theatre Live not only unearths this dramatic gem for wider audiences but also makes it relevant for the modern times.
Coriolanus is probably Shakespeare’s most gory and solemn play. It revolves around the historic figure of Caius Marcius Coriolanus, a legendary Roman General, at the time when Rome was not yet an empire but rather a city-state constantly at war with its neighbours. Although the main focus of the play is the personal tragedy of the title character, the play also captures the wider struggle for democracy. The story begins with Coriolanus being called, once again, to protect his city from its enemies, the Volscians. They are led by Aufidius who not only craves to conquer the city itself, but also is eager to slay Caius Marcius whom he considers to be his archenemy. Nevertheless, Coriolanus triumphs over the Volscians and defeats Aufidius in an intense stand-off.
On his glorious return from the battlefield he is encouraged to become a consul by his ambitious mother, Volumnia. Despite politics being alien to his nature, he runs for the position to please his mother. His arrogance and belief that only the elite is suitable to rule, paired with the growing famine among common people of Rome, result in him losing the votes needed for the consulate. With scheming from cunning politicians and his own inability to understand the rules of the political game, he soon becomes banished from Rome. However, Coriolanus then obtains support from his former enemies, the Volscians, and returns to Rome to seek bloody revenge.
Directed by the Donmar Warehouse’s artistic director Josie Rourke, the production features a plethora of well-known performers including Tom Hiddleston in the title role (most recently seen in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive), Mark Gatiss (BBC’s Sherlock) as Menenius, a Roman senator, and Birgitte Hjorn Sorensen (star of Borgen) as Coriolanus’s wife. With Hiddleston’s outstanding performance, Coriolanus comes to life as a complex and tragic figure. He manages to successfully portray not only Coriolanus’s brutality and single-mindedness, but also his human sides and feelings that at first seem completely non-existent in this arrogant and fierce persona. Despite the fact that this character could hardly be considered positive, especially in the light of current beliefs about democracy and society, Hiddleston’s intelligent performance allows the audience to really empathise with this tragic figure. An additional highlight of the production is Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia, whose pride and desire to realise her ambitions through her son results in his brutality, and ultimately a tragic demise. Although this story is sombre, the play still has some room for refreshing humour that comes from Gatiss’s wry Menenius and cunning politicians Brutus and Sicinia, brilliantly portrayed by Elliott Levey and Helen Schlesinger.
The production takes place in the intimate space of the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. The staging and costumes are simple, with props mainly consisting of chairs and ladders that, at different times, represent battlefields, the streets of Rome, and the senate. This simplicity is a bold choice, as plays like Coriolanus are often staged with pomp and elaborate sets and costumes. But this approach allows concentrating solely on performances, character development, and plot. Certainly, seeing the live show and the brilliant cast in the flesh would probably be more rewarding, but thanks to modern technology and the high-quality broadcast, the audience can still enjoy the intensity and emotional impact of Coriolanus. The additional beauty of Coriolanus is in the fact that it has not been staged as much as Shakespeare’s other plays. As a result, many viewers may find the final climax of the play to be a surprise. This effect would be hard to achieve with more famous plays like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Also, the issues portrayed in Coriolanus seem painfully familiar with current struggles for democracy in many corners of the world, as well as the gap between the elite and the rest of the population.
This National Theatre Live production is stark, highly artistic, and fast-paced even though Shakespeare’s language, despite its beauty and expressiveness, can often intimidate readers and theatre-goers alike. But in this clever interpretation words help to raise the power and intensity of the action to a new level. Coriolanus is definitely a treat for both Shakespeare connoisseurs and those who are only beginning to discover the depth, richness, and timelessness of the Bard’s works.