Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

coriolanus pic for blog

Rome. Graffiti. Blood. Plebs. Patricians. Pushy mothers. Poppies. Pride. Prejudice. Chairs. Noise. Swords. Ladders. Treachery. Humour.  A small blonde boy on an empty stage.  My impressions of this stark, sparse and very bloody interpretation of Coriolanus.

The empty Donmar stage initially hosts a single spotlit ladder.  Our first view in the play itself is of  (the soon to be named) Coriolanus’s son marking out a diamond-shaped space in red paint. Red is a theme, or motif, here – paint, falling poppies, blood and the pieces of paper representing the people’s “voices” (votes) adding splashes of colour to an otherwise muted set, and suggesting the violence and impending bloodshed to follow.  After all, this is a world where a mother can gleefully count her son’s wounds as badges of honour, and a child can be praised for torturing a butterfly.

As with my last Shakespeare outing, the first scenes  here also featured hoodied youths  – this time spraying graffiti about grain prices on a back wall.  That device, with added digital graffiti later on,  is put to great use in a small space to demonstrate the growing discontent of the populace that could never be accommodated on such a small stage.  Another effect that I loved was the use of chairs that could be moved to accommodate scenes, but that also doubled up as shields, lookouts (or was that one a horse?) and more.

Like the South London version of Macbeth, accents are used here too to delineate class difference  – the first citizen’s “muvver” contrasting with the more refined accent of Mark Gatiss’s Menenius, (That difference in accents is also played out much more noticeably in the Northern accents held by those playing Volscians).

And, then we have Tom Hiddleston’s Caius Martius (initially without the surname Coriolanus) himself, the tragic anti-hero only really at home on the battlefield (and closer to fellow soldiers), whose fate is largely determined by a horrifying mother’s militaristic ambition for him, and an inability to fawn or flatter.  While he’ll dash headlong alone up that ladder to singlehandedly take the city of Corioles, the glory (and the name Coriolanus that he gets for doing so) that brings him is unwanted.  Later, by betraying his city,  friends and family, he’ll be literally dashing downwards (headfirst even)  equally alone, but banished, for the second half of the play.

On paper, the character doesn’t come across well: he’s an arrogant hot-headed snob, with no respect for the common people, and little understanding of the need for subtlety.   His “I banish you”, delivered to the tribunes representing the city is, itself, a great line, but with just  a pointed finger in this production, there’s a much more heart-wrenching personal banishment later. But there’s also humour  that softens that.

This is a Coriolanus that can use his height to tower over people and intimidate them with at times a threatening physical presence.  At one time he’s “A lamb that lives like a bear”, later “moves like an engine and the ground shrinks before his treading”.  That range is captured beautifully.  The physicality of the performance is exhausting at times – sword fights, being thrown backwards over an enemy’s shoulder (presumably no mean feat for someone over 6 ft in a confined space), and almost balletic, beautifully choreographed fight scenes.

Despite his faults, In many ways, Coriolanus is the most honest character on stage. For me the plotting of Sicinia (usually Sicinus but here a female character) and Brutus, combined with his obvious reluctance to be in a political setting – the gesturing and eye movements from Hiddleston betray his unwillingness to be in such an environment  – mean that we find ourselves sympathising for the character, feeling his pain, discomfort, anger, sadness,  and then ultimately  resignation at what his fate will turn out to be.  Yes, he can abandon friends and family, but he’ll pay for this when he eventually does relent.  With the first signs of genuine feeling, he’s effectively  sealed his fate.  And he knows it as he utters “Like a dull actor now/ I have forgot my part and I am out/Even to a full disgrace”.

Much has been made about the “shower scene”” where Coriolanus washes away the blood of battle.   It’s too easy to suggest that this is playing along with Hiddleston’s fanbase, but this is all about pain, and we see the scars that he’ll uncompromisingly refuse to showcase to the voters or Senate.  Again, the only real colour in this scene is red as the droplets of bloody water are shaken vigorously out of his hair. The lighting makes the water look strikingly metallic, almost sword like.  He wears his scars thickly, and  the pain with which he washes away the battle of Corioles almost hints that this is a man soon to be even deeper out of his element.  In gaining the name Coriolanus, he’s equally lost a part of himself.

And he’s soon stripped back further to a gown of humility, forced to grovel for the votes of the plebeian class that he despises, defenceless against the machinations of the tribunes who are plotting against him, and with whom he is incapable of dealing in anything but an imperious manner.  He lets himself be goaded by them.  As the play’s Director Josie Rourke pointed out in this BBC interview, this is not a man of strategy, but of impulsive action, hating the thought of begging for the popular vote, and out of his element with mind games.  That interview is also fascinating  as it reminds us that the play was written at a very different political time to our own, by a playwright writing for a very different type of monarchist audience of a city who didn’t share our understanding, let alone experience of democracy.

The emotional landscape of the play changes with the interval and the outcome of Coriolanus’s banishment.  The scenes are longer, less frenetic, quieter and a bit more private.  But nothing is completely private in this world: just as in the first Act, any intimacy with his wife Virgilia (Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sorensen making the most of little provided dialogue in a flawless English accent) has to even be a public experience.

All in all this is a heart-wrenching and emotional production whose final scene will live with me for a long time. We see it hurtling towards the only conclusion of a Shakespeare tragedy. Regardless of the character’s flaws, he is a hero of sorts who is shaped and fated to fail as anything other than a soldier, and is ultimately undone just as he regains non martial feelings and gives in to the love of a mother who has had most influence on the outcome.


  1. When my older son was 10 (he’s 46 now) we went to Stratford together. He didn’t want to see a play at the Shakespeare theater so we went back to our B&B and turned on the television. It was showing an exciting film about Roman legions and such — just the sort of thing he was interested in. At the end, we found out it was Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

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