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Even with Hiddleston, the Vigor of Youth
Is No Match for Messaging in Power Politics

Donmar Warehouse, London, England
Thursday, February 20, 2014, NT Live broadcast, Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Directed by Josie Rourke

Shirtless Coriolanus, covered in blood, screams under a shower of water.
Martius (Tom HIddleston) washes his wounds after the battle of Corioles in the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus. Below, Martius shares a tender moment with Virgilia (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). Photos by Johan Persson, The Corner Shop.

The key to casting Tom Hiddleston in the title role of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus is not that he's a great Shakespearean actor—which he is, as evidenced by his performances as Prince Hal and Henry V in the televised Hollow Crown series; or that he's a matinee idol—which he is, having played Loki in The Avengers and Thor movies; or that he's hot—which he is, winning a "Sexiest Man Alive" MTV News readers poll and being called "passing sexy" by Coriolanus director Josie Rourke. The key to casting Hiddleston as Caius Martius Coriolanus is that he's young.

This Martius is a Millennial, as are his warrior rival and his wife. This tilt in these key characters' ages influences the play in subtle ways in this sharp, politically charged production at the Donmar Warehouse, which we caught in an NT Live broadcast at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harman Hall.

Designer Lucy Osborne gives the production a timeless setting, dressing the cast of 14 in modern clothes but giving them ancient armor and accoutrements. The bare stage relies on Mark Henderson's lighting design for a sense of place and atmosphere, while the set is a brick wall covered with graffiti. A metal ladder is used by the citizens when painting their slogans on the wall and by Martius to enter Corioles during the battle with the Volsces. Lining the back wall are simple metal chairs on which much of the cast sits when not in a scene (and in the NT Live broadcast, actors sitting there are featured in close-up when other characters are talking about them—in this way, we get a formal, visual introduction to the two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinia, which adds clarity to the subsequent action involving the two tribunes).

Not sitting back there is Martius. You don't want to diminish the explosiveness of the entrance Shakespeare gives him in the opening scene, striding on stage toward the rioting citizens and barely giving his closest friend Menenius time to say, "Hail, noble Martius" before answering "Thanks. What's the matter, you dissentious rogues/ That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,/ Make yourselves scabs?" (note that the single-word sentence of "Thanks" is an off-beat in the iambic pentameter structure of the verse). I can think of no more forceful first impression in the canon. Here that impression is compounded by the fact that it's the first appearance of the handsome Hiddleston.

And in that instance, the actor–character dissonance commences and continues for much of the play. This has nothing to do with Hiddleston's acting skills, per se, because he certainly has the range to play a charming rogue of a prince, a vibrant king, and an evil alien god, not to mention a dashing villain who drives a Jaguar and sips tea from a Minton china cup. It does have to do, in part, with his silky voice and his melodic approach to all of Shakespeare's verse, including Martius's. Hiddleston makes his opening lines sing rather than seethe, and this quality dogs his character for the rest of the play, especially when he starts ranting in the Senate scenes; if not for his allies (Menenius, Cominius, and Titus Lartius) growing increasingly agitated, we don't sense the danger rifling through his speech.

Let's face it: Hiddleston has a natural charm that makes him such a likeable guy, even when he is playing an evildoer. Shakespeare's Martius isn't an evildoer, but he is an unmitigated jerk, and Hiddleston reaches that state only once: Wearing the gown of humility in the marketplace as he's campaigning for consul, his Martius is the most obviously dismissive of the citizens that I've ever seen. His disdain is so transparent as to be comical, and that humor seems to be a greater factor in Hiddleston's overall portrayal than showing Martius as pathologically proud.

Shakespeare imbues the play, as he does all his tragedies, with comic elements, from witty repartee to comedic interactions, and the relationship between Martius and his mother is a trove of potential humor. This production also makes fun of the psychological space between Martius's pride and the perception of others. When the banished Martius presents himself to his Volscian rival Aufidius (Hadley Fraser), Hiddleston is hooded but sporting no obvious change in his appearance. "Prepare thy brow to frown," Martius says, and Hiddleston delivers this so over-dramatically its earns one of the biggest laughs of the night. Hiddleston removes the hood and turns to Aufidius: "Know'st thou me yet?" he asks in his most Martian glow. "I know thee not: thy name?" Aufidius replies, and Fraser gives no hint that Aufidius, who has fought Martius in hand-to-hand combat five times, recognizes him at all. Hiddleston's incredulous look earns the night's biggest laugh. "My name is Caius Martius," he says impatiently; but he slows down and turns ominous as he continues, "who hath done to thee particularly, and to all the Volsces, great hurt and mischief: thereto witness may my surname, Coriolanus." From comic charm to threat of harm is an easy transition for Hiddleston, but less sure-footed for the audience.

Hiddleston is also 33 years old (for real) going on about 24 (as Martius). Shakespeare does not give Coriolanus an age, but the part is traditionally played as middle-aged and up, in which case Martius's lack of maturity is ingrained stubbornness and a sense of privilege. A lack of maturity in someone in their early 20s is just a lack of maturity. Hiddleston's Martius is guilty of, at most, being too self-important, like many 20-somethings, and when he says of the common people, "I had rather be their servant in my way, than sway with them in theirs," that's know-it-all ego talking rather than upper-class snobbery. Meanwhile, the singular bravery he displays in the battle at Corioles seems like youthful recklessness in Hiddleston's portrayal, like Bryce Harper tearing around the baseball diamond: We cheer his aggressiveness if he makes it to third, and if he doesn't we call him stupid. "Foolhardiness," says one of the Roman soldiers after Martius is locked inside the city alone. However, after he emerges, bloody but victorious, the army shouts, casts up their caps, and takes him up in their arms.

Even if Hiddleston is not a comfortable fit as Coriolanus, the youthful exuberance so natural to this Martius and the humorous send-up of his oblivious cockiness, along with merely watching and hearing Hiddleston perform, are redeeming qualities of this portrayal. When he pulls off his shirt to reveal the bleeding gashes after the battle of Corioles (kudos to Michael Ward and Michelle Piper as wigs and make-up supervisor and mistress, respectively) and endure a painful shower there on stage, the audience gasps. At the realistic wounds? At this ancient Olympian representation in living, bare-torsoed flesh. Both, I'm sure.

The choice of making Martius a young man not only shifts the title character into a new light, it highlights fresh perspectives on other characters in relation to a younger Coriolanus. Fraser's Aufidius, for example, is a mirror image to Martius. Watching Fraser's portrayal, you understand exactly why Martius is so infatuated with him: because he sees himself. There's envy and enmity and also a kindred spirit that ultimately leads Martius to Aufidius after the former has been banished. Played young, Aufidius comes off just as audacious and shortsighted as Coriolanus (and Fraser gives hints that Aufidius is bisexual, which, in a way, is part of his youthful audacity).

Virgilia, as played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, is a revelation. Compared to Volumnia, Shakespeare doesn't seem to give much heft to Virgilia, but Sørensen 's portrayal unveils a viable alternative: considering the mama's boy Martius is, Sørensen 's Virgilia is very much the wife this Martius would take, aside from her hot model looks. She may not share her mother-in-law's taste for blood and war, but she does have an aggressive spirit that peers through her supposedly timid demeanor in the domestic sewing scene when she becomes downright catty with the meddling Valeria (Jacqueline Boatswain). In the post-banishment confrontation with the tribunes, Sørensen's Virgilia plays the part of Volumnia's protector, and we see that she is more than willing to throw down with Sicinia, like Martius with Aufidius. She shares tender, loving scenes with her husband—but his behavior sometimes triggers her claws and he appears as frightened of her as he does his mother.

Volumnia in this production is of matronly age, but the stoic Deborah Findlay does not play her as an old woman. She tends to treat her son as the toddler she obviously adored (watch her eyes glisten at Valeria's description of her grandson chasing down a butterfly and mammocking it), but she also treads a course of steady wisdom. She has much pride in her son, but she is, ultimately, a Roman first and foremost, and she is ever serving her state, whether it is in raising its invincible warrior, grooming him for consul, advising him on tempering his attitude, lecturing the tribunes, or pleading for mercy with the revenge-minded Coriolanus. Menenius (Mark Gatiss), on the other hand, is not the elder statesmen and surrogate father of tradition but more of a cynical politician and elder brother to Martius. Just entering middle-age, he knows how to work Rome's political system, from his interplay with the protesters to his coaching of Martius on campaigning for consul, and a bit of Martius-like pride emerges in his confrontation with the Volscian guards keeping him from seeing Coriolanus during the siege of Rome.

Blond and beautiful Virgilia in chain-mail patterned modern midi dress and gold cape sits on the lap of beautiful Coriolanus in green t-shirt and leather breastplate.How much this youthful leaning is intended or a happenstance of casting is not clear, because Rourke's chief interest is in the play's political story—and it is a modern political story. She condenses the three Corioles battle scenes into one and streamlines the last act so that Aufidius sets in motion the assassination of Coriolanus immediately upon the women departing for Rome. The women's triumphant entry into Rome has been completely excised; instead, the play ends with Volumnia, isolated, standing on the edge of the stage looking blankly straight ahead while the body of Martius is strung up and his throat slit like a sacrificed lamb.

Meanwhile, Rourke keeps the centerpiece political scenes almost entirely intact, and they are presented as heated parliamentarian debates edging into physical violence. The demonstrations of the opening scenes recollect the Wall Street protests of recent years, and the tribunes are portrayed as political operatives and spinmasters. Thus, Rourke's most important casting turns out to be Elliot Levey as Brutus and Helen Schlesinger as Sicinia. The two tribunes, especially Schlesinger in a performance of subtle brilliance, dominate the action as they assess the political landscape, canvass the crowds, and maneuver Martius into rhetorically hanging himself. When the citizens follow the tribunes' instructions and clamor for the banishment of Martius, Brutus and Sicinia glow in self-satisfied victory, reveling in their popular power. Their smugness in subsequent scenes is well-earned (the fact that they become a romantic couple is extraneous matter that adds nothing to either Shakespeare's story or Rourke's).

Furthermore, instead of becoming feeble cowards upon news of the Coriolanus-led Volscian march on Rome, the two tribunes turn to the tool that garnered them their power in the first place: the skill of persuasion (Rourke cuts out their last scene featuring a frightened Sicinia hearing of Brutus being haled up and down by angry citizens). Brutus and Sicinia can even spin their most entrenched opponents into carrying out their purposes. They move the cynical Menenius to sue to Coriolanus, and when Cominius (Peter De Jersey) determines he must haste on Volumnia and Virgilia to plead with Coriolanus, he notably insists that the two tribunes join him in the effort. Cominius still despises them, but he knows that the most potent power in Rome is the tribunes' expertise at messaging.

Shakespeare does not take sides in Coriolanus: Martius is unquestionably an elitist despot, the tribunes are clearly most interested in their own interests, and the citizens are comically fickle. But because Shakespeare draws all of these elements so vividly, productions over the years have used the play to espouse everything from fascism to republicanism to communism by playing up one aspect or another. With Hiddleston's natural charm and his portrayal of arrogance born of youthful ignorance, this production seems to cast Martius as truly heroic and the tribunes as purely politic. And yet, it's the politicians who are left standing at the end—specifically, Volumnia.

Eric Minton
February 28, 2014

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