Josie Rourke’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s last tragedy & his last Roman play is uniquely suited to the sparse setting of the Donmar Warehouse. This small stage is open to the audience on three sides; only 14 chairs, a ladder, and the back wall serves to embody the whole of ancient Rome.
Yet what it achieves is to involve us, and the audience that was lucky enough to see the live performances, in the drama. We will become, by turns citizens demanding grains at our own price, the rank and file of Caius Martius’ army, or citizens again mocked by the hero even as he seeks our votes. We are patricians of the senate, the mob that pelts him as he leaves the city, and finally the crowd praising his mother, Volumnia, when she returns after having sent him to his gory death. But even as the stage makes us part of its world and brings us close to the hero, it does not make us intimate with Caius Martius Coriolanus . Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s more inscrutable leads; in Tom Hiddleston’s powerful performance, we see him as athletic, angry and outspoken ― his inner workings all but a mystery.
In spite of single-handedly sacking the city of Corioles, Coriolanus cares neither for spoils nor titles of the war. Even when he returns to Rome and agrees to run for consul, it is only at the behest of his mother, Volumnia, played astutely by Deborah Findlay, rather than because of his own ambition. So, is Coriolanus’ mother to blame for her son's anger and his pride? At the start of the play, when the citizens are gathering to raise a ruckus for fair-priced grain, they consider attacking Coriolanus because they know he hates them. They also know his military record. But the latter wins him no favours because they are not convinced of his patriotism. According to them, 'though soft conscience men can be content to say, it was for his country/he did it to please his mother.' (Act 1, Scene 1)
Volumnia has no doubt it is so. When he is away fighting the Volscians, she tells her miserable daughter in law, Virgilia (Birgitte Hort Sorensen), how she happily sent him to wars when he was just a boy. When Virgilia asks, 'But had he died in the business, madam, what then?' Volumnia responds smilingly, 'Then his good report should have been my son.' [Act 2, Scene 2] In the play, Coriolanus seems little more than a means for Volumnia to achieve her own ends. As they are talking about him, Hiddleston as Coriolanus stands framed in the background – a painting or a puppet rather than a man in his own right. This makes for a powerful image.
While he might seem an opaque protagonist, Coriolanus is either taciturn or shy; he argues often, and in the first person. The savvy Menenius (Mark Gatiss), a patrician and one of Coriolanus’ two father figures, agrees:
His nature is too noble for the world…
His heart’s his mouth… (Act 3, Scene 1)
Coriolanus’ hamartia, the play seems to suggest lies in an inability to dissemble. He fancies himself as belonging in the age of Hector and Achilles, straight as an arrow aimed at a purpose. However, in this new nation-state, as the people’s tribunes (Helen Schlesinger as Sicinia Veluta and Elliot Levey as Junius Brutus) demonstrate, it pays only to be a coin that can be flipped for opportunity.
So, when a surprised Coriolanus, realizes that the same crowd that voted him in is now ready to exile him, he cries, ‘O world! Thy slippery turns!’ At the end, pride has lost. But the winner is greed. And thus, even as the play discredits public opinion, it reveals its power. Rourke’s brilliant adaptation is successful not just because of the impressive performances or clever staging, but because it asks us questions about the self and the world that are troubling even today.