“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Shakespeare? Not quite. The quote actually comes from THE DARK KNIGHT, but it does perfectly capture the dilemma facing the character of Caius Martius in Shakespeare’s final tragedy, Coriolanus. It is one of Shakespeare’s less frequently performed works, although Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut in 2011 used the medium of film to bring its grisly battles and angry crowds to life.
For this production at the Donmar Warehouse under Josie Rourke’s direction, it has been stripped back (sometimes literally) to the bare essentials. A brick wall becomes graffitied with messages that echo the voices of the people, the cries of the masses are amplified through the sound design, and the battles are kept off-stage, save for one physical bout of hand-to-hand combat.
Rourke recognises that despite the scale and settings of his plays, Shakespeare’s work is ultimately about people and dialogue. External conflicts therefore give way to a focus on the internal conflict within one man.
Caius Martius is a proud and decorated soldier, almost bred for the purpose of war by his mother. Yet while he is willing to fight and die for Rome, he has a deep disdain for the politicians who govern it, and for the people he protects within it.
When he is elected to the Senate after single-handedly taking an enemy city, a plot emerges to reveal his true feelings to the people and to strip him of his power (after all, who doesn’t like to see a politician publicly disgraced?). But it might have dangerous repercussions: hell hath no fury like a soldier scorned.
Shakespeare’s texts can initially appear daunting to some, but adaptations of the plays to more modern settings, whether on stage (with the National Theatre’s recent productions of Hamlet and Othello, for example) or on film (such as in Joss Whedon’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET) – sometimes even making us watch Shakespeare almost unawares (WEST SIDE STORY, 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, THE LION KING) – help to introduce them to new audiences.
Another way of expanding the audience is to cast actors who are better known for their work in the world of TV and film. 2013 saw the likes of James McAvoy, Jude Law and David Tennant take on some of the biggest roles in Shakespeare, including Macbeth and Henry V.
Perhaps best known to cinemagoers as Loki of Asgard in THOR and MARVEL AVENGERS ASSEMBLE, Tom Hiddleston is the latest movie-star name to tackle the Bard, but this is certainly not a case of stunt casting. He is an experienced Shakespearean stage actor, having previously appeared in Othello at the Donmar and won an Olivier Award for Cymbeline. TV audiences will also have seen him as Prince Hal/Henry V in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown.
Hiddleston commands the stage with a brooding physical presence, and has a tremendous command of the Shakespearean dialogue, at ease delivering speeches both to armies on the battlefield and to politicians in the Senate. A highlight comes during one of the few really long speeches in the play, a spellbinding scene in which Martius kneels before his enemy Aufidius and offers him his throat to spite the Romans who banished him. This Martius is not all pomp and bravado, however; Hiddleston peels away the layers to reveal his true feelings about politics and family, laying himself bare to the audience in a shower scene that shows the true cost of his many years in battle.
Hiddleston is supported by a small yet hugely talented cast, including Deborah Findlay as Martius’ mother Volumnia and Mark Gatiss as Senator Menenius, who expresses his pain at being turned away by the man he used to regard as a son – and at the bleak future he foresees for Rome, for “This Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon.”
The intimacy of the Donmar Warehouse really helps to heighten the performances. Even standing in the circle, I could still see Hiddleston’s face begin to crack with emotion as his mother pleaded with him to call off the siege of Rome.
While it is fair to say that there is not a bad seat in the (Ware)house, the problem is getting one: the popularity of the production meant that the entire run sold out as soon as tickets went on sale. However, thanks to National Theatre Live, you can see the play performed and transmitted live via satellite at your local Picturehouse Cinema on Thursday 30 January at 7.00.