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Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

Published 18 December 2013

Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar was always going to be hard to follow. Jude Law and David Tennant haven’t made it any easier. The third Shakespeare production to open in London in so many weeks, Coriolanus has a lot to live up to.

It gets off to a good start, with a small boy sketching the outline of a square on to the stage in red paint: a boxing ring in which violent exchanges are soon to take place. Swords strike. Bodies recoil. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.

It is through the play’s first bout of bloodshed that Tom Hiddleston stamps his mark on the production, his fierce and defiant Coriolanus winning a battle singlehandedly in a ladder-climbing scene that no doubt acts as a metaphor for his rise to prominence. He doesn’t escape unscathed though, and what follows is both chilling and theatrically stunning as he cleans his wounds under a cascading shower.

Here we see Coriolanus the tough guy. But as the production progresses, Hiddleston draws out the complexity of his character, capturing Coriolanus’ weaknesses as well as his arrogant ruthlessness. He can do nothing to stifle his mother’s dominance and his true emotions as a son, a father and a husband are revealed when his family begs him not to seek vengeance on Rome. There is humour too. “Like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part” raises more than a few titters from the audience.

When Artistic Director Josie Rourke took the Shakespearean reins from Julius Caesar’s Lloyd, it seems she inherited an element of the acclaimed director’s imaginative approach to the Bard’s tragedies. Not only has she cast Helen Schlesinger as one of the male tribunes, she has also updated the production to include Lucy Osborne’s unconventional costumes, a fusion of the modern and the traditional, and her set is dominated by a wall adorned with graffiti.

Schlesinger and Elliot Levey as Sicinia and Brutus give the traditional characters an interesting twist, Mark Gatiss provides a calming and noble presence as Menenius, and Deborah Findlay makes for an assertive and patronising Volumnia, overcome with pride and, later, desperation as she experiences the rise and fall of her son.

Rourke’s production flits from visually stunning to subtly spectacular. One moment there are fireworks, debris and petals falling to the ground; the next, the staging is sparse and attention is drawn instead to the power of the Bard’s words. But she strikes a balance that works.

While Hiddleston’s first encounter with the Donmar’s fake blood bank resembles something close to a devil’s costume on Halloween, the same cannot be said of the final scene, which shocks, repulses and produces an overwhelming urge to vomit.

If you think your stomach can take it, you can catch Coriolanus as part of NT Live on 30 January 2014.

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