There is a reason that Shakespeare remains timeless, a reason that his plays are performed again and again and the Donmar Warehouse’s recent production of Coriolanus is a perfect example of why that is. With an incredibly intimate setting, scraping chairs and lashings of blood it is the next Shakespeare to be given its modern make-over and oh boy does it translate across time.
Set in the semi-apocalyptic time of the modern adaptation that doesn’t want to be too specific, Coriolanus continued the recent trend of bringing Shakespeare bang up to date with a graffitied set and metal ladders running from floor to ceiling. As a complicated political drama, Coriolanus has a reputation for being wordy and difficult to follow but under Josie Rourke’s direction the play took a new turn. It tells the story of returning soldier Caius Martius who is heralded as a hero before being screwed over by the senate and banished from Rome.
Intimate rather than on a large scale the play is claustrophobic, with the cast entering the stage from all angles and remaining on it, stock still and in the shadows, even when they are not acting. It becomes a heightened pressure cooker of emotion and keeps you tense and on the edge of seat. Something which is exacerbated by the eerie and fast paced music which signals the end of each scene.
The play has an excellent supporting cast with outstanding turns from Deborah Findlay whose usual talent for humour is swapped seamlessly for something far more fear inducing. As well as Mark Gatiss, in whose hands Shakespearian language sounds like a mother tongue. But this show belongs to Tom Hiddleston. Terrifying and tragic at the same time he wields huge power on stage in what is an incredibly physical performance. Playing the soldier Caius Martius whose, shall we say less than delicate way with words gets him in trouble in the first place, was always going to demand something more physical. Hiddleston’s performance sees him scaling ladders, hosing blood off his face, sword fighting and being strung up by his ankles. It is a role which sees him out of breath for a vast majority of the play but my word is it effective. In his hands the ambivalently sympathetic character becomes a tragic figure and every nuance of the man is explored without judgement. Watching the play you feel like you are watching an actor who is at the top of his game, clearly just as at home on the stage as on the big screen and carrying the title role with ease in a production where there is stiff competition biting at the ankles.
It is a show which reminds you just how powerful Shakespeare can be, and how suited it is for this kind of imaginative re-telling. The plays are so adaptable and this production of Coriolanus with its graffitied walls and powerfully intimate setting squeezes every drop of the emotion out of it until the audience are left reeling.