Review: Coriolanus

Less an alpha male, more a mummy's boy

By John Nathan, January 17, 2014

Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

Up in arms: Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus

Up in arms: Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus

The London stage currently boasts two of Shakespeare's most alpha males, each played by a Hollywood leading man. While, at the Noel Coward, Jude Law's Henry V lays siege to the French town of Harfleur, at the Donmar, the one-man army that is Tom Hiddleston's Caius Martius storms the Italian city of Corioles. These two come hardish on the heels of James McAvoy's battle-hardened Macbeth. When did the West End last see this much smiting?

What separates Henry and Coriola-nus is their common touch. While Henry is able to win hearts and minds, Coriolanus's talents tend more to gouging them out. He is so good at this that Rome honours him with the office of general consul. But it is a post that requires diplomacy and politicking and the ability to be nice to the city's Plebeians for whom Coriolanus has nothing but contempt. So he creates his very own Plebgate scandal and, at the behest of Elliot Levey's Machiavellian Brutus and Helen Schlesinger's Sicinia, Rome's greatest soldier is humiliated and exiled.

In Josie Rourke's taut production these events are driven at thriller pace. It is impossible to say whether the Eton-educated Hiddleston intended to bring a touch of Prince Charles to Coriolanus's more civilised exchanges but it certainly adds authenticity to this portrait of a man with a monumental sense of entitlement. And in the scene where he stands statue-like as tomatoes chucked by commoners smack into his face, his very stillness evokes a foreboding sense of the revenge that will be wreaked.

Yet no one is more terrifying here than Deborah Findlay's Volumnia, Coriolanus's mother. When she declares to her son's wife that she would rather have 11 sons "die nobly" than one live without the honour of battle, it is clear what motivates Rome's greatest soldier. And it has nothing to do with being an alpha male and everything to do with being a mummy's boy.

Lucy Osborne's design makes terrific use of the Donmar's back brick wall. Public grievances are spelled out in the form of scrawled graffiti. Rourke not only generates a terrific amount of tension. She is really good at violence. And though this may not be the richest of Shakespeare's tragedies, the evening evokes some pretty pertinent thoughts about ruling classes and the skill needed to appease an increasingly disgruntled public just enough to allow the toffs to maintain their influence.

Last updated: 6:28pm, January 17 2014