Tom Hiddleston would probably accept the removal of a zero or two from his next ‘Avengers’ paycheque if it meant no journalist mentioned the fact he went to Eton ever again. Nonetheless, his elite education is called intriguingly to mind in Josie Rourke’s stripped down, action-packed take on Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’. In the midst of all the blood, graffiti and pyro, Hiddleston plays the eponymous Roman general not as a hearty veteran, but a gifted young man, one whose martial honour and prefect-ish sense of fair play is fatally spiked by a complete incomprehension of the lower orders.
Rourke isn’t always subtle, but she maintains a powerful sense of moral ambiguity in between all the loud bangs. Indeed, it’s the souped-up combat sequences that first give us cause for concern about Hiddleston’s hero. When he first appears he cuts a dash as a tall, handsome general who storms the gates of an enemy city singlehanded. But his looks become marred, first by gore, then by the look of glee that crosses his face as cruelly, gratuitously throttles his nemesis Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) after besting him in robust single combat.
The suspicion that the world of powerful men is all that matters to Coriolanus is confirmed when he returns to Rome and manages to spectacularly alienate the entire plebiscite. In this he’s aided by Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger’s wonderfully slimy politicians, who seek his downfall for petty, slimy politician reasons. But the heroic Coriolanus’s total disinterest in the non-elites is made disturbingly obvious – when he begrudges the release of grain to hoodie-wearing civilians who haven’t ‘earned’ it, the spectre of our government's anti-welfare rhetoric looms disturbingly large.
A complex, compelling central performance, but the production has a very ensemble feel. Mark Gatiss is good as Coriolanus’s mentor Menenius, half pompous light relief, half sad, wise old man. Deborah Findlay is a scene stealer as Coriolanus’s histrionic, self-serving, but fundamentally sensible mum Volumnia. And fans of telly’s ‘Borgen’ will be delighted to spot Birgitte Hjort Sørensen in the mix as Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia – it’s a small part, but she plays it with an impressive intensity.
Though mostly exciting, Rourke’s robust direction leads to a few missteps – notably a spectacularly crass scene where Fraser’s Aufidius tries to snog Hiddleston for a cheap, lazy laugh. Really, though, it works, an intelligent look at the psychology of the elite, wrapped up in the sleek chassis of an action thriller.
By Andrzej Lukowski
The 300-seat Donmar may itself feel like a bastion of privilege, but you’ve got several options if you want to storm the walls of this sold out show: a fresh batch of tickets goes on sale every Monday at 10am, while day-seats are available from 10am at the box office. Failing that, the whole shebang is coming to a cinema near you on January 30: see ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk for details.