Some of William Shakespeare’s most famous works are his tragedies – Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet are some of the Bard’s most recognizable plays. As Shakespeare grew older and his writing matured, the plays got darker, smarter, and much deeper. These are definitely three words that describe Shakespeare’s last tragedy, Coriolanus.
It can be argued that Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays – in fact, as someone who has studied quite a few Shakespeare plays, I hadn’t heard about this one until it was announced that Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss would be performing it at the Donmar Warehouse.
Coriolanus is the story of the proud soldier Caius Martius, who is given the name Coriolanus after he takes the Italian city of Corioles. The story is set in ancient Rome, after the famine, where the aristocracy has given five common people the title of “tribunes” in answer to the people who are demanding they set their own prices for the cities grain supply. This is a little fact that does not sit well with Coriolanus as he feels the lower classes are beneath him.
Upon his return to Rome, Coriolanus is treated like a hero and the government wants to give him the position of “consul,” the highest elected position within the Ancient Roman government. While that seems all fine and dandy, Coriolanus must do one thing in order to achieve this position – beg the people of the city for votes. He manages to receive the votes at first, but two cunning tribunes, who think that Coriolanus is actually an enemy of the people, manage to make everyone change their minds. This triggers Coriolanus’ tragic flaw – his pride – and he angrily dismisses the idea of “popular rule.” This little outburst leads to Coriolanus’ exile from Rome.
From there, Coriolanus heads to the land of his enemy in Antium and makes peace with Aufidius, who has been planning an attack on the Romans, so of course he accepts Coriolanus’ help. As a team, they are very successful in overtaking the Romans, and they even make it outside the walls of Rome. It is here that Coriolanus’ old friends attempt to sway him, but it isn’t until his mother goes to see him that he finally cracks his hardened shell and backs away from the attack. Unfortunately for Coriolanus, Aufidius does not see what Coriolanus has done as a noble act, but one of treachery – this of course, leads to the tragic death of Coriolanus (brief summary based on SparkNotes – don’t judge me, we’ve all used it, and I wanted to make sure I explained it properly for you all as it is a pretty tricky play to follow).
The production of Coriolanus at the small Donmar Theatre is nothing other than superb. Right from the dramatic beginning to the equally dramatic ending, you are sitting at the edge of your seat, heart pounding, dying to see what is going to happen next. The set up of the entire play had an extremely long first half and a shorter second half – I actually thought they were going to push right on through without intermission at one point. The tiny theatre, which only holds about 250 people, made the entire event very intimate, and if you were lucky enough to be in an eye line as I was (even in the back row) you felt the intensity oozing off of the actors – and oh how the acting was incredible.
The entire ensemble gave great performances that really allowed the play to flow and feel. Both supporting and main characters were all strong in their roles, but of course ,everyone has their own standouts.
First and foremost I need to give a shout out to Alfred Enoch – also known as Dean Thomas from Harry Potter. It’s always great to see the kid Potter actors make something of themselves now that Potter is finished and he was great in his role as Titus Lartius – he is definitely not Mr. Thomas anymore. Hadley Fraser was also fantastic as Aufidius – Coriolanus’ archenemy – I wouldn’t call him your typical Shakespearean villain because he isn’t “evil” per say; he’s just the leader of an opposing army. He isn’t very cunning, or an evil mastermind (well, ending aside) but still very enjoyable to watch…he even gets some smooching in with a certain someone. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, who plays Coriolanus’ wife also shines in an emotional role that shows her rollercoaster ride of emotions of having a loved one fighting in battle.
My three favourite performances came from Mark Gatiss as Menenius, Deborah Findlay as Volumnia (Coriolanus’ mother), and Coriolanus himself – Tom Hiddleston.
Gatiss’ character is an old friend of Coriolanus – almost a patriarch figure as he mentions in the play. His character made many long speeches which Gatiss delivered flawlessly with all the power they needed. As my fellow PopWrapped editor Kirsty Wallace and I have dubbed it – he gives good Shakespeare, very good Shakespeare.
One of my favourite characters in the whole play was Volumnia – she is such a strong female presence in the play, and Findlay does such an amazing job, stealing so many scenes. In the first act, there is one scene where Volumnia is trying to convince Coriolanus to apologize to the tribunes for his behaviour and attitude towards them, and it’s just so heartbreaking the love she has for him. Findlay just rocks that scene. The second time Findlay shone was when she goes to speak to Coriolanus as he is outside the walls of Rome and brings him back from his hardened, unfeeling self. Those two scenes were so powerful I actually got teary eyed.
And last, but certainly not least: Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus. Hiddleston completely rocks this role. He is intense, emotional, tough, soft, just everything that he needed to bring to the character, he did. Coriolanus is a very complex character who is too proud for his own good. But he’s also a momma’s boy, and it is in the scenes where you see Hiddleston go between these two extremes that you really appreciate how fantastic he is in the role. Like with Gatiss, Hiddleston also gives great Shakespeare – the best. This role just made me more excited at other potential Shakespeare plays he can do on stage (I actually have a list). It was truly an honour to be able to watch Hiddleston – someone I have admired for so long – play this role and just kill it.
If you are planning on going to see the play, either on screen or at the Donmar, I must warn you that it is a very difficult play to follow. As Shakespeare’s last tragedy you can definitely tell his age in the story and the text itself; it is very complex. That being said, as someone who has studied Shakespeare, it is still difficult to follow at some points so definitely do some reading before you go to make sure you understand what is going on. It would be a horrible shame if you couldn’t grasp some of the most intense, goose bump worthy scenes. And one more thing I want to mention – because an incident happened at the show I went to – if you are going to the show, please don’t film because it is extremely disrespectful to everyone in the cast and crew who have worked so hard to put the show together.
Overall, I would have to say that I had a very good first experience with the Donmar Warehouse. The play was wonderful, the acting was superb, and the intimate venue was perfect for the whole tone of the play. Shakespeare is my favourite playwright, so to be able to see one of his works on a stage as it was meant to been seen rather than read in a classroom was a really special experience (even if it was a shortened script). As a nice bonus, I was actually able to meet Hiddleston after the show and was able to tell him what an amazing job he did – that definitely solidified my night as a really great one.