This is an abridged version of the post I wrote after seeing Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse in London in January of 2014. The tone of this is rather different from what I use on this blog, so be prepared for random allusions to other media and over-eager fangirling. Hopefully this will provide some more background on the plot this Shakespeare tragedy as well as my thoughts on it. For a review of New Epic’s production at the Lab Theater, read it here.
I would like to preface this post with the admission that the fact that I saw this show, in the flesh, in London is A) exceptionally fortunate, lucky, and privileged, B) somewhat phantasmagorical and surreal that it actually occurred, and C) one of the most humbling and moving experiences of my life. If I could personally thank everyone at Donmar Warehouse associated with the show, I would do so, but I am afraid this post will have to suffice.
What does one say about Coriolanus? It’s a tragedy, that’s certain. One knows that from looking at the title page of Shakespeare’s script: The Tragedy of Coriolanus. This isn’t going to end well for the title character. But the play doesn’t even start well for the title character. It begins with some very angry citizens wanting to kill Coriolanus for driving up the price of grain. In Josie Rourke’s staging at Donmar, this is preceded by graffiti being panted on the wall in Latin, reading “grain at our own price”. From the beginning, there is a sense of violence, tension, and unease. Sitting in the back row of the circle, the second level of the Donmar, with my back to a fire escape, I was rather terrified every time I felt a bit of wind on my neck or a particularly intense bit of action occurred onstage that someone was going to appear behind me with a sword and I was going to find myself even more immersed in the play than I already was.
Whether you are familiar with the storyline or not, the staging and expression of the actors makes this play engaging and watchable. During the intermission, I told Tyler, my friend/theater companion, that I had somewhat forgotten I was watching a Shakespeare play. I meant this in a strangely positive way – I was so immersed in what I was going on I wasn’t thinking about the transitions from Act 1 to Act 2, I knew things had been cut out but I wasn’t concerned with them as I have been in other Shakespeare plays I’d seen performed. At the end, I knew that certain things had been tweaked but it didn’t occur to me until later and I didn’t mind. Language in Shakespeare is rarely a problem for me but in this staging, with what felt so seamless and smooth from act to act, scene to scene, I forgot entirely that the language I was hearing was not how we speak day to day on the street. It sounded so natural and so clearly expressed that I forgot that what I was hearing was in anyway unlike how I would have a conversation with a friend, or how I’d debate an issue with a coworker.
Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus was absolutely marvelous. Coriolanus is a complicated character – he’s not a likeable guy, he reacts rather angrily and forcefully and belittles the plebeians. And yet, Shakespeare wants us to feel empathy for him, to see him as a man driven by urgings to seek glory and power. Hiddleston does this phenomenally well. At the beginning, when he brushes off the concerns of the citizens and later, when yells at his troops in a harsh very un-Henry V sort of way, the immediate reaction is dislike. Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, is quick to anger, violence and is kind of what I’d picture Cato from The Hunger Games being as an adult – a person who was trained early to be really good at one terrible thing – killing. (And speaking of The Hunger Games, according to the program from the play and from Donmar’s Twitter feed, President Snow’s first name in the books is Coriolanus. Guess my seeing all of the allusions to the books isn’t entirely unmerited.) Also like Cato, Coriolanus is greatly subjected to the expectations of his society and the expectations held about himself. He is both prideful and reluctant, wanting to claim what he feels is rightfully his in becoming consul, but refusing to show his wounds gained in battle in order to gain votes.
I’ve asked myself where my opinion of Coriolanus began to shift during the show, when I really began to feel sympathy for him, and it was shortly after the epic battle scene, staged with brilliant effects of falling embers and ashes, in which Coriolanus is presumed dead, only to reenter, bathed in blood. My edition to Coriolanus describes this scene as him being “like a new-born in battle. It is as if, to be a man, the ‘fatherless’ Coriolanus must reborn of his own volition in the masculine setting of war” (Crewe xxxviii). In this particular staging, I saw this scene a bit differently. This is less about becoming a man but becoming a public spectacle, of going for soldier to war hero. Once Coriolanus enters, a horrific, epic sight, he has transgressed from ordinary into completely extraordinary. (But perhaps this is because I was watching Jack Gleeson’s talk on celebrity culture before writing this).
After this scene, in which Hiddleston is covered in so much blood that I truly felt myself growing nauseous, the play shifts into what I’m going to call the shower scene. I’d heard about this part before from the internet reacting to the fact that a shirtless, blood-covered Hiddleston showers onstage. Fans lauded the sexiness of this scene. I would like to add my two cents and assure you that though Mr. Hiddleston may be a very, very attractive man, this scene was not sexy and I was in utter agony throughout the whole thing. If you have trigger warnings with injuries or gore or such, I encourage you to skip the next section in case they might bother you. (Edit/ fun fact: This is how I learned that I am in fact afraid of blood, especially stage blood. Not ideal timing.)
Here is how the scene goes – Coriolanus strips off his shirt, blood matted in his hair and streaming down his neck, revealing a very gruesome wound on his left arm (I was facing stage left and thus got a very clear view of its gruesomeness). He proceeds to stand under a torrent of water, shuddering at first from the cold, then proceeding to slowly, agonizingly, let the water clean his wound. Somehow, without dialogue, only with physical actions, body language, and pained moaning and screaming that just recalling it makes me shudder, Hiddleston makes you feel as if you are Coriolanus, experiencing that piercing water pouring into your wound. This scene felt outrageously real to me and I am still wondering how the make-up artists made the wound look so real and how Hiddleston can possibly express such levels of pain night after night.
By this point in the play, I start feeling rather badly for Coriolanus. He’s gotten really beat up in battle, his worst enemy Aufidius, “a lion that I am proud to hunt,” is still out there fuming and plotting against him, his mother is happy with his return but wants more from him, and now he’s trying to win an election while a lot of people still hate him. He also shows a certain tenderness towards his mother, Volumnia, his wife, Virgilia, and his friend and supporter, Menenius, which contrasts nicely with his rage and anger elsewhere and makes it harder to simply dislike him. Coriolanus has depth and complexity. He longs to do something else with his life that doesn’t involve killing people for a living. Becoming consul could allow that but he must always conflate his warrior status with being a politician. Or perhaps he is unable to be any sort of politician but that who does always conflate his warrior/soldier life with politics but doesn’t want to be other-ized as this victor, as a war hero. I could postulate on Coriolanus’ mental state all day so I’m going to stop myself before that’s all I end up writing about.
This brings me to another area of interest for me and one I wish I knew the answer to. Upon reading the play, thinking about it over the course of a few months, and then upon seeing it, I found myself changing in how I thought of the characters. At times I agreed that Coriolanus was a tragic hero and at other times he seemed more a tyrant, a future President Snow that was stopped before he could go too far. Other times he was a political pawn, used to garner support for something he seemed somewhat detached from. And yet he still had his pride, he yearning for respect and admiration, to be seen as worthy of great accolade. I wonder, and continue to wonder, how actors peg down such mutable characters. Is there a way of fixing on certain interpretations so that each night you know what sort of Coriolanus you’re playing while still allowing the other versions to simmer beneath the surface, to allow the audience to pick up on these possibilities while still expressing clearly the sort of character you are presenting? Are there still little things that shift about? Some nights, are a word or two given with more anger, more hostility than other nights? Does Aufidius ever present himself with slightly more hostility? Does Coriolanus ever feel a slight bit more forlorn? These are the things I wonder before and after seeing shows, upon wondering how an actor will present a character and seeing that, while a portrayal is clear, I still see so much simmering beneath the surface.
On the note of complicated characters, I’ll pick up with the two lead women of the play: Volumnia and Virgilia. Volumnia is described by Crewe as being powerful, perhaps even more powerful than her son, using him as a sort of surrogate to gain her own status (Crewe xxxvi). In fact, Crewe even claims that Coriolanus might be more valuable to her as a dead hero than a living one (Crewe xxxvii). I was surprised, however, when Volumnia seemed rather hysterical at parts. At first, I found this a little off-setting – why was such a complex character acting so weak? And then I stopped myself. She wasn’t acting weak – hysterics is not a sign of weakness. Volumnia uses her “feminine weaknesses” to stay ahead of the men in her society and make sure that she is in an advantageous position despite her son’s mistakes. If she supports her son, but also distances herself from his actions, she can stay ahead of the tide and keep herself being dragged down into his misfortune. And yet she tells him that “action is eloquence” and yearns for his success. At the end, it’s her encouragement of him to leave Aufidius and the Volscians that is his downfall. However, it rids Rome of the problem he brings to them – a man who has been ousted from his homeland, taken in by their enemies, but longs to a place where he might have been heralded as a hero. At the end of the play, Volumnia returns, viewing her son’s dead body while rose petals fall around her. Perhaps this suggests that she is the true hero, ridding Rome of a future tyrant. Perhaps this is to suggest that she only wanted the best for her son but he refused to compromise to her ideals. Perhaps it suggests that she destroyed him and that there is a tragedy in a misbegotten relationship. Perhaps its none of these. Deborah Findlay makes for a marvelous Volumnia and presents her as a character that is oftentimes is as contradictory as her son.
Virgilia is also a complicated character, made so partially due to her limited amount of lines and little known about her relationship with Coriolanus. Despite the limits of her character in the script, Birgette Hjort Sorensen gives a lot of depth to Virgilia and performs her marvelously. Virgilia and Coriolanus have a son and in Josie Rourke’s staging, the couple seems to have a very warm, affectionate relationship. So when Coriolanus is banished, Virgilia’s reaction is very striking and powerful. Dressed in a tight black dress and heels with a sophisticated air, she seems the sort that perhaps has imagined being a senator’s wife or a First Lady. This seems, however, to come from a little of Volumnia’s pressures, something that comes out when the two women first appear and Volumnia tells Virgilia to enjoy the time she has away from her husband. This staging of the play makes further allusions to it when both women come to visit the banished Coriolanus and Volumnia pushes Virgilia to confront her husband, which she does rather sexually, sliding into his lap and kissing him while caressing the inside of his thigh. As this builds, Coriolanus pushes her off, seeming shocked, suggesting that something about this is offsetting or unusual. While they would seem to have a passionate, romantic relationship, perhaps this suggests that her actions are used to manipulate him as well. Perhaps Coriolanus is a changed man and cannot feel the range of emotion he would like to have towards his wife at this moment, or perhaps what he feels is too painful to deal with. Or perhaps, given his recent interactions with Aufidius, he simply cannot deal with more intense physicality.
This brings us to Aufidius, a character which powerfully represents the intermingling of sex and violence which Hadley Fraser does with great panache. He seems to simultaneously want to kill Coriolanus and tells him this, while making a lot of sexual insinuations and, in this staging, even kisses him. A case in which homoerotic subtext isn’t very subtext and is performed as such paired up with the pivotal characters of Volumnia and Virgilia makes this play a whole lot of heated emotions. Crewe describes Coriolanus as preferring a plane of “contradictory passion and predatory interchange” in Rome, a harsher, more violent world that could Freudianly be read as consumed by the id (Crewe xxxvi). The interactions between Coriolanus and Aufidius are jarring and confusing, and I love it. There’s no assumptions made about sexuality in the show, nor does it suggest anything about romance. It’s a instance of mutual obsession, in which the two men are muddled up in hate and love and it is expressed in various ways. Complicated this with the idea that Aufidius is meant to be a double of Coriolanus and one could begin to wondering if this is more a commentary on self-adoration and pride as well as masculine superiority and patriarchal ideals, as readings like Crewe’s take on.
Last but not least there is Menenius, who is suggested as a father-figure for Coriolanus and a bit of a Falstaff figure of support. He acts as a bit of comic relief and helps show an endearing, positive side to Coriolanus’ warlike nature. To Menenius, Coriolanus is a hero and a good man, someone who deserves to hold the place of consul, and who could lead Rome to greatness. However, between Coriolanus’ unwillingness to compromise and the citizens’ insistence on Coriolanus to reveal his wounds and keep the promises made to them by those surrounding Coriolanus, Menenius’ hopes are not to be. Menenius seems to be the smooth talker with a comic streak, which Mark Gatiss brings out marvelously, and he acts as the one who can assuage the politicians while Coriolanus rages and spouts whatever comes to his head before the assembly. There is something more restrained about Menenius, as if he were a sort of press correspondent for a rather uncouth politician. While he urges the Tribunes to believe that Coriolanus can be a good consul, Coriolanus with simultaneous darkness and humor snarkily persuades the citizens to fill out the ballots in favor of him. And when the citizens find they’ve been misled, they oust him and harass him, pelting him with tomatoes. Just scenes earlier, rose petals were dropped on a welcomed victor, and suddenly the tides turn and Coriolanus is now beaten with rotten fruit. And yet the worse for him has still not occurred.
I’ll leap ahead now to the end of the show, which I will summarize briefly. After being thrown out of Rome and escaping to the Volscians, Coriolanus is visited by Menenius, whom he rejects, as well as his mother, wife, and son later. They bow before him, treating him as a powerful sort of warlord. Coriolanus’ own son lays prostrate before him, an action, along with Coriolanus’ reaction, that pulled roughly at my heartstrings. In one instance, Coriolanus appears to be ignoring his mother while she speaks to him, his back turned to her and appearing stoic. But, as he was facing our side of the theater, you could see the tears streaming down his face, not in the least bit unfeeling to her words.
Ultimately, Coriolanus decides to leave and return to Rome but, unlike the play, he never leaves the Volscians. Instead of being killed by conspirators, he is killed horrifically by Aufidius himself. Remember the trigger warning about gore from before? I’m going to bring that back for the remainder of this paragraph. Roughly grabbed, hung up by his ankles and either his abdomen cut from navel to chin or his throat cut or both, he is roughly murdered, his body jerking and spraying blood across the stage. To say this scene appalled and terrified me is a gross understatement. I have seen murders in plays – I’ve seen a staging of Macbeth in which Macbeth was trussed up and beheaded. But again, it was the realism here, the uncompromising frankness and intense stage effects that has imprinted this ghastly scene on the back of my retinas for the rest of eternity. I was not expecting the play to end this way – I can’t say that anyone really was – and to then contemplate going to the stage door afterwards felt kind of perverse. Really I only wanted to curl up in a little ball behind my seat and cry for the next hour or two. These are the times I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into by becoming a Shakespeare fan.
I find it hard to really concisely summarize this play because I feel it encompasses so much. However, Crewe has given me a good way in which to do this with the line, “the one all alone is a god or nothing. To be a god in human guise is to be nobody at all, since humanity is constituted only in relation to other humans, and by their recognition” (Crewe xli). When Coriolanus worries about his words being twisted, when he longs to be powerful but by his own accords, not along the demands of the citizens, he struggles with the good old Shakespeare issues of public and private, of a ruler and a loner, of struggling to who he is versus what others want him to be.
I also haven’t managed to talk about the rest of the cast, which is a shame, because they are all brilliant. I especially liked the duo of Brutus and Sicinia, the Tribunes, played by Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger. The stagings they had as well as their expression was really interesting and makes for a great insight to political discussion and commentary on the show. But truly every member of the cast is astounding and all work together marvelously and powerfully onstage.
Despite the fact that I have managed to make this play sound like the most painful thing in existence – and would agree that it has ruined me forever, I highly recommend seeing it via National Theater screening if possible. This show really has changed my life, as a would-be academic and as a fan of theater. It is an amazing, vibrant, powerful performance, and nothing I can say will really capture how much in awe of this show I am. Theater continually inspires me with its ability to interact and engage with audiences but I felt that this production took it to a new level for me. So a thousand and more accolades for Donmar, Julie Rourke, and the entire cast, crew, and whomever else isn’t considered by those mere nouns for this absolutely marvelous show. Consider this an infinite standing ovation.
Crewe, Jonathan. Introduction. Coriolanus. By William Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. xxvii – xlix. Print.
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