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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Coriolanus at the National

Or: “There’s a place in this world for the angry young man”

It is most fitting that the National Theater of England should choose to showcase the work of Josie Rourke, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse a tiny little found space in the heart of Covent Gardens. In this tiny square arena with its single Jacob's ladder, ripe with the memory of bananas, Rourke choses to weave the story of civil unrest, poisoning pride, and the founding of an empire that spanned the globe. Her Coriolanus happily bathes itself and the blood of battlefields and senate floors, but holds itself upright from the mass of brutish violence of other Coriolani by taking up Shakespeare’s poetry not as a bludgeon but like a bride in arms.

The people of Rome are in uproar. Little do they know that in future generations their children's children's shall hold three continents at ransom and produce the most marvelous and hideous works in history. For the moment they are just citizens of one of several dozen city states, beset by their neighbors and starving for want of grain. Their voices in the senate, the tribunes Brutus (Eliot Levey) and Sicinia (Helen Shleshinger) pin the peoples fury on general Caius Martius (Tom Hiddleston), recently returned with honors from defeating his mortal foe Aufidius (Dadley Fraser) commander of the Volskies. A man well versed in the art of war but unschooled in politics, and despite the offered tutelage of his friend Menenius (Mark Gatiss) his wife Virgilia (Birgitte Huorst Sorensen) and beloved, fearsome mother Volumina (Deborah Findlay) struggles to find a place for his values, and his temper, in the churning maelstrom of political opinion.

Rourke’s directorial choices cloth modern sensibilities in ancient armor. She shoehorns in more pauses, especially towards the climax, than Shakespeare’s text traditionally allows, but by letting the language drift a little she allows her actors greater ease in bringing out the meaning behind the poetry, which is as visceral as you are like to find in Shakespeare’s later works. The smiling, conniving, back handed compliments Menenius and Sicinia waft back and forth between each other garner more sting, and more laughs, than if they were hurled, consonants bristling, at high speed. The modern slink and unpretentiousness of movement cultivated by the cast create a pleasing dissonance against set designer Lucy Osborne’s arena where our eponymous hero must always grapple for life and dignity, glazed in blood and scratched all over with english and roman graffiti; the literal writing on the wall that our hero fails to read. This is an ancient space, before Rome ever knew of pomp and excess. The back wall is all-blazoned with the five foot tall red stripe used in the old republic to remind its citizens of the blood of their families that could be stain those stones if they ever lapsed in vigilance or hate: “(Insert Name Here) Delenda Est”.

Hiddleston fits in remarkably well to this grinding world of the modish and arcane. He relies less upon Caius’s rage than his uncertainty: he has followed one path, one set of values, all his life which no longer meet the situation and which he is deeply unwilling to cast aside. This lends a fresh cast to his interactions with his wife and mother, not the old story of the scarred veteran trying to straighten out or beat his household with the chains of command, but as young man, eager to please, who just hasn’t been around long enough to know how to speak in a gentle way. This makes his long silences with his mother, the only person who truly understands and cleaves to his values, especially touching. But set Hiddleston at the walls before Corioles or with a naked sword in hand in the Capital, and you will see the tiger in the man, wide eyed, teeth beard, a blazing son of war you for whose command you could easily charge into a cloud of arrows or slaughter ungrateful plebeians in the market place. Even at his most violent and politically incorrect, Hiddleston possess such an assurance that the audience cheers on his impassioned speeches only to realize a half second later they have just given the jewel of their regard to the father of fascism. Oops.

But even more impressive than Hiddleston’s fire is the depth and smoothness Gatiss provides. In addition to parcelling out each of Meneniu’s careful thoughts, Gatiss can also lift and carry the verse at the speed and grace it is accustomed to. He is as convincing as when he lays down parables like a folksy MP (who smiles and self depreciates but heads nine committees and secretly runs the government) as when he curses out our hero, the son he never had, for letting his temper control him, (again). He juggles his character like a snake charmer handling a king cobra, admiring its sinewy grace and knowing when to unfurl the hood for the full shock effect.

To keep a metaphor going, if Gatiss carries the cobra than Findlay lugs the Boa Constrictor; she doesn’t quite present Volumnia with the same grace as other characters but it is cheer worthy that she can support such a weighty role at all. This is not to see she does not give true honesty to Volumnia’s affection, indeed of all the interpretations I have seen she gives most credence to the all-consuming love of this woman, the original soccer mom. Her final, always impossible to stage, confrontation with her son drips with pain for both as they try to memorize the others face, squeeze whatever they have left unsaid into one last goodbye. Sorenson gets extra points for transforming traditionally milk-mild Virgilia into a passionate, snarky, but still high-strung military wife. She heaps hateful curses upon her husbands detractors, weeps with an refreshingly unladylike loudness, attempting again and again to turn her husbands attention to the Home Front (nudge nudge) and refusing to fade into the background (though pounding her head against the wall might have been a bit much). Fraser loses points for failing to trim his perpetually cheerful yorkshire accent when presenting grim Aufidius, though in fairness he has many a surprise up his jerkin sleeve that guarantee raised eyebrows and muffled coos of “Well, I never!”

Rourke deserves the oaken garland for her keen shakespearian ear, her gift of highlighting the poetry and sharp cutting images often swept away in the choler or ponderousness of a scene, as well for her clever, clear and still surprising staging techniques and her ability to marry two vastly different traditions and still give equal voice to both. Her cast is comfortable in this decidedly murky play, and render their parts with grace, passion, and intelligence. How much more satisfying it is to see a Coriolanus that carves rather than bashes, and how sweet to think of its cries of unrest and questions of the right to rule echoing from the beating heart of a once mighty empire which, like its hero, knows not what to do now the rules have changed.

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