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Donmar Coriolanus in review

Cor

The National Theatre production of Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse sold out the day tickets were released. This was not a surprise, partly because it’s a small theatre with a relatively short run, partly because of its casting and also because it’s Shakespeare and he’s bigger box office now than ever. It’s actually quite remarkable that a less well known play in the canon about a man who is hard to like should be such a hit and says much about our appetite for Shakespeare as well as the high quality of contemporary interpretations of his work.

I had hoped it possible to see Coriolanus live at the NT, but with people queuing all day for the chance of released tickets and black market tickets reportedly changing hands for £2,000, there was never any chance of that. So instead I went to the live-streamed performance in the Attfield Theatre, Oswestry.

The Attfield is in the nineteenth century Guildhall. I’ve no idea if the theatre was part of the original fittings, but it feels as if it could have been with its seats upholstered in fading velvet, restricted leg room and a general sense that things weren’t quite what they had been. It has charm and character and over the years I’ve seen a few amateur stagings there, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which two of the mechanicals were played by our village postman and an English teacher from a nearby school. They were great, with Bill the postman as Lion a triumph.

I was apprehensive about the live-streaming, having always been slightly sceptical about filmed stage productions – probably scarred in childhood by Olivier types declaiming to the camera, unaware there was no need to shout. Concern was groundless. For one thing, the Donmar is an intimate space; there was no strain to be heard at the back of auditorium. For another, the lead actors were almost all familiar faces from film and TV; they know that on screen less is more.

Which is not to say there weren’t some high theatrical moments – such as when Tom Hiddleston as Caius Martius showered after battle, the bloodied drops of water flashing jewel-like as they splashed from his wounded body. Or when he had earlier attacked the Volscian capital of Corioli alone, but accompanied by much clattering and banging and flying of sparks. These moments were much in contrast with some of the scenes between Martius and his wife, Virgilia, played by Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, where close ups allowed her to do much with very little.

I didn’t find it possible to forget this was a screened production, although its live-streamed nature did give it an edge. It was also very much a piece of theatre. The staging was minimalist, dominated by a brick back wall onto which slogans were at times graffitied, reminders of all those other walls from Ancient Rome to Berlin and the West Bank Barrier on which the powerless have expressed their discontents.

And for much of the time the actors, when not performing, sat on chairs set against the wall. In part, this gave the sense of a rehearsal, but more powerfully seemed a link to the origins of theatre. They were like a mute chorus, silently commenting on Martius’s classic tragic arc from war hero to double traitor and corpse.

The critics generally agreed that Tom Hiddleston’s performance was outstanding. I didn’t entirely share that view. I couldn’t escape the feeling that Martius was basically an idiot and that with a little more tact the whole mess could have been avoided. I know that’s like saying that if only Macbeth had been a little less ambitious or Othello slightly more trusting of Desdemona they wouldn’t all have ended up untimely dead, but I couldn’t quite believe in or care enough about the character Hiddleston portrayed. Why couldn’t he just have been a little nicer to the plebs? How come he thought it such a great idea to take up sides with his fiercest enemy?

There was though, real pathos in the scene with his mother, Volumnia, played by Deborah Findlay, as she, Virgilia, and his son plead with Martius to spare Rome – knowing that were he to do so he would condemn himself to death. When it came, it too had an emotional charge. Hiddleston was hung centre stage by his ankles, like a carcass in an abattoir – a cross between routine butchery and animal sacrifice.

Whether I would have been more willing to suspend disbelief had I seen the performance live is imponderable. The friends I went with were gripped by the drama, so I guess the failing was probably mine, not Tom’s. But there was much that I enjoyed along the way, not least a gifted portrayal of Mennenius by Mark Gatiss which added much deft humour.

It was notable that the Donmar audience found more to be amused by than we in the Attfield. They might have been responding to things out of camera shot, or perhaps picked up on nuances lost on screen. At the close, when the London audience applauded there was uncertainty with us – was it appropriate to clap or not? A few tried, but most simply picked up coats and headed for the exit.

It’s been said the play is more relevant now than ever, with a greater disparity of wealth in the UK even than in Victorian times. While Pay-Day loan firms multiply, the government that cuts housing benefits for the disabled is stuffed with millionaires and led by an ex-Etonian. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really, that the cast of a play that turns on patrician contempt for the poor should be led by another old Etonian, Tom Hiddleston.

But it would be unfair to hold his schooling against him. He put in a strong performance and for those of us who can’t afford £2000 for a black market ticket, the live-streamed production was a great way to share the drama. Next up, King Lear on May 1. I have booked my place already. It cost £12. A snip.

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