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REVIEW: “Coriolanus”—National Theatre

Tom Hiddleston Sizzles as Warrior and Aristocrat!"

The Live re-broadcast of Shakespeare's “Coriolanus,” starring a fiercely powerful Tom Hiddleston (“Betrayal,” “The Avengers,” “The Night Manager”) in the title role, streams for free June 4 at 2 PM ET.

Watch the performance above or on the National Theatre’s YouTube; the video is available until June 11 at noon ET. Running Time: 2 hours 40 mins with a very short interval.

Josie Rourke (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”) directs the company, which includes Mark Gatiss (“The Madness of George III,” “League of Gentlemen”) as Menenius, Hadley Fraser (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Young Frankenstein”) as Aufidius, Alfred Enoch (“Tree,” “Harry Potter” film series) as Titus Lartius, and Deborah Findlay (“Allelujah!,” “Top Girls”) as Volumnia.

The ensemble cast includes Rochenda Sandall, Mark Stanley, Dwane Walcott, Peter De Jersey, Elliot Levey, Helen Schlesinger, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Jacqueline Boatswain, and Joe Willis.

The creative team includes set and costume designer Lucy Osborne, lighting designer Mark Henderson, sound designer Emma Laxton, video designer Andrzej Goulding, composer Michael Bruce, and fight director Richard Ryan with movement by Jonathan Watkins. The broadcast team is comprised of director for the screen Tim van Someren, technical producer Christopher C. Bretnall, lighting director Bernie Davis, and sound supervisor Conrad Fletcher. Photos are by Johan Persson. Accompanying the production is a score composed by five Boston Symphony Orchestra Tanglewood Fellows.

“Coriolanus” was originally filmed live on stage at the Donmar Warehouse in 2014 by National Theatre Live, and part of “National Theatre at Home” series. Director Rourke also uses the Donmar's intimacy to come up with a fast, witty, intelligent production that exemplifies Tom Hiddleston’s distinctive talents.

Tom Hiddleston’s recent role in The Avengers found him almost at opposite poles with the majority of Marvel’s super mutant heroes. But this most compelling action hero this year is mowing down multitudes and wallowing in carnage, with nothing but a naked sword and a whole lot of testosterone.

True, he saves the city of Rome from pillaging invaders, almost single-handedly. And he’s a committed family man who is especially loyal to his mother. Of course, given that Mom (the dominating Volumnia, played by the mighty Ms. Findlay) is the only person around who matches him in fierceness, he’d better be.

But if you look closely at his motives — something Coriolanus would never do himself — he’s not exactly what you’d call noble, unless you mean patrician (which he is by birth). He’s not propelled to martial glory by love of country, or a moral code, or even self-advancement.

Tom Hiddleston plays a repellent Coriolanus-brave, great and noble, but, to put it bluntly, addicted to war. Without it, he has no idea who he is. When we see him standing tall on a smoking battlefield, drenched from head to toe in the blood of his adversaries, we realize it’s the only time he looks fulfilled and at ease. He’s as happy as a spoiled 2-year-old with the sandbox all to himself.

But what makes this production so uncommonly gripping is its view of Coriolanus as a man in flight from himself, determined to avoid the identity beneath the armor. He’s all unedited impulse, and watching him try to control his peacetime temper evokes the irresistibly awful spectacle of perhaps a tantrum-prone tennis star losing it on the court.

One reason why “Coriolanus” is rarely seen is because the title character is more of an antihero than a hero. He’s internally a mass of flaws—a Roman general who is primarily a man of war, who’s also a spoiled, arrogant, mother-dominated boy-man, scorning all in his path with no real understanding of the common people.

So whether Coriolanus qualifies as a tragic hero is open to debate; but Hiddleston gives us a man ultimately destroyed by his own headlong nature. He is also the victim of idolization by his militaristic macho mother; and Ms. Findlay provides a vividly rounded portrait of Volumnia as a woman who values military success above all else, and whose attitude to her son is a mix of hero worship and exasperation. She is the person who taught Coriolanus how to bully - she uncoils herself to assume an easy grandeur of gesture. She is statuesque. She uses the verse like a knife. She subdues the small space of this stage - just as she does her whimpering, subordinate son.

But careers can rise and fall equally fast. Coriolanus never made a secret of his contempt for the proletariat, “whose breath I hate as the reek o’ th’ rotten fens.” He is quickly deposed and banished. In retaliation, Coriolanus brazenly japes that it is he who banishes Rome from his own presence, words that would later come back to haunt him.

A vengeful Coriolanus then switches his allegiance to Rome’s greatest enemy, the Volscians, led by Aufidius. Surprisingly, Aufidius, canny nemesis that he is, embraces him readily in a warping, homoerotic tension that confuses both men and partners with him in a new assault on Rome. Before he can do so, however, his articulate mother, along with his wife and small son, prevail upon him to change his mind. Consequently, the Volscians now see him as a vengeful traitor to his country and viciously kill him.

The character's vanity and hair-trigger temper are effectively built into the role by Mr. Hiddleston. In the struggle between the arrogant patrician warrior and the people for whom he has no respect, Shakespeare exposes layers of complexity and contradiction on both sides. But in this production, Mr. Hiddleston allows his Coriolanus degrees of emotion and a greater subtlety than is often seen in the part. A warrior and aristocrat, Coriolanus spends much of the play angry, and there were some rather high theatrical moments – one such standout being when Hiddleston’s tortured character was hung center stage by his ankles, like a carcass in an abattoir – a cross between routine butchery and animal sacrifice.

Coriolanus was available as part of “National Theatre at Home” from Thursday, 4 June, on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel, then on demand for one week until Thursday, 11 June. For the trailer, go to: Show your support: donate to the National Theatre here:

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report


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