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Fringe Online 2020

Low Down

Directed by Josie Rourke the Donmar’s 2014 Coriolanus Lucy Osborne provides a sparse design in red diagonals. Michael Bruce’s music is largely choral and solo-vocal, counterpointed by Emma Laxton’s Sound. Mark Henderson’s lighting too suffuses gloom pierced at key points. Video Design by Andrej Goulding, Movement by Jonathan Watkins and Fight Director Richard Ryan.

For the Broadcast Team Tim van Somoren, Assistant Director Laura Vallis, Technical Direction Christopher C Bretnall, Script Supervisor Cecilia Savage, Lighting Director’s Bernie Davis, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher, Till June 11th.


The NTLiveAtHome series continues with the Donmar’s sinewy shadowy Coriolanus from 2014 with Tom Hiddleston in the title role, directed by its Artistic Director Josie Rourke. It’s a production playing with timeliness and timelessness, enveloped in Michael Bruce’s music, ending with a boy’s singing.

Citizens fling themselves at shadows in a set lit in piecing stabs by Mark Henderson not unlike the interior of a lone grain siloh in Lucy Osborne’s sparse flexible design marked in red diagonals and sudden splashes as in an iconic scene the blood-masked Coriolanus washes himself in a shower of water jetted down and lit over his face. It’s proleptic of the final scene in an ingenious coup you must see. At moments ladders drop, and with a few chairs and a Latin-daubed brickish wall, chiaroscuro sculpts the rest.

Rourke’s production gains real strength in thewing as well as thinning the rhetoric, arming arguments with danger in this mighty reckoning in Donmar’s magical little room. Each citizen’s blasts a speech, to etch particular grievance in overlap in this elegantly pared production – surprisingly Shakespeare’s third-longest.

Tumult brings Mark Gattis’ sardonic, wry peacemaker Menenius to the fore. He’s initially more Machiavel in reason than commanding – as befits his nature. Surrogate father to Caius Martius later Coriolanus, he can muse broken when later spurned. He’s outbraved by Deborah Findlay’s martial mother -someone who upbraids Coriolanus for lacking politics, when she forged him herself.

Hiddleston’s Martius certainly rings with Roman bronze: he’s all lean presence, martial vigour, superb in Richard Ryan’s fight scenes, indeed anywhere near soldiery he gains cubits. And there’s the right uptight uprightness in this least inward of Shakespeare’s Roman heroes.

Rourke’s built her production round her core actors’ qualities and it’s revelatory. Hiddleston yet echoes his Henry V, lacks the froideur so palpable in Ralph Fiennes in his 2013 film, or to reference another version we can still see, Alan Howard’s 1984 BBC production after his RSC performances.

Vocally Hiddleston’s not only lean roaring but a soft tiger purr when dealing with multitudes, dripping with contempt; rasping to slice ripostes to those who exile him for pride. Rourke and Hiddleston trace Coriolanus’ faultline, the frozen Venusian interior of this martial front. It explains much, what attracts his greatest foe, yet what cracks him open.

Coriolanus, as he becomes, bypasses a crucial humanizing development. His nearest equivalent, Othello was in armour when his arms had seven years’ pith, a soldier – and briefly slave – all his life. Yet Othello though flawed bears a more integrated femininity. Hiddleston’s Coriolanus makes his a fatal discovery. Equally Othello hardly lacks warmth or humanity, and it can’t all be class.

But it can be its inseparable twin, upbringing. Findlay’s Volumnia here centres the drama, in both the Oedipal passion palpable between Coriolanus and herself in long embraces, twin to that other conflict-darkened love, the homoerotic one between Coriolanus and arch-enemy Volscian Tullus Aufidius, who’s also in touch with his feelings. It’s in his presence Coriolanus discovers all his before during and after his family visit.

It’s in these two violent loves the play’s dynamics twists on. They girt with fire the forum of reasonable arguments so patiently worked elsewhere, almost contradicting their relevance, though crucially Volumnia’s exhortations to Coriolanus to show humility on his election as Consul is superb: her politic, incredulous exhortations and near-disowning of his arrogance with her own: ‘Do as thy list,/Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck’dst it from me:/But owe thy pride thyself.’

Hiddleston’s seething speech climaxing ‘I banish you’ is of a piece and scale with this production. His next line ‘There is a world elsewhere’ is spoken very differently after a beat in solitude before Findlay comes wailing out at him. It’s a fine touch and in his consoling words to Findlay and Sorensen again one feels a gentler less flinty animal, certainly no sociopath; a touch of Coriolanus in the night.

No wonder by the end you feel in this production with Menenius and the rest that Volumnia’s both Consuls at once. Her son’s not the only one damaged by upbringing in Findlay’s unblinking assumption; Coriolanus is perhaps the perfect damage wrought over generations. Findlay’s commanding, yet learns almost broken-voiced to bend the knee. The supplicant trio’s cloaks echo Coriolanus’ exilic one: fine comment on the fragility of civilisations.

There’s room given to the ‘gracious silence’ of Birgitte Hjort Sorensen’s Virgilia, a seething rather – as light catches her grief even early on. But her words are forceful, cut off not simpered out. She’s ferocious too against Coriolanus’ banishment twinning with Findlay, even supporting her as Findlay breaks down, tigerish in later supplication; finally seducing Coriolanus with a passionate kiss in front of all. You wonder how she’ll save Joe Willis’ Young Marius in a few years, whose voice we hear at the end.

No-one else bar Gattis’ Menenius even pretends to beard Coriolanus. Peter de Jersey’s furiously loyal Cominius having already served, but with a martial tang can rail at Coriolanus’ enemies yet also scorned by his friend. Otherwise, bar Menenius’ counsel, Findlay’s Volumnia commands Rome, and at least makes a case for patrician virtue. In her crumbling suppliant pilgrimage later to plead with her son not to sack Rome and tread over her womb, you see an arc of class pride shatter down to a core of what true strength she has, her own. That’s enough.

The great meeting between two former enemies is played out with stillness as Coriolanus offers his throat, seems nearly to have it cut. Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius exudes warmth with intensity and you believe him when he claims ‘when I see thee here,/Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart/Than when I first my wedded mistress saw/bestride my threshold.’

By then Fraser’s kissed his former enemy twice on the lips. The audience laugh at the way Fraser manages that so when he comes to the dream ’down together in my sleep’ the innocent ‘fisting each other’s throats’ elicits stifled laughter, and a little later ‘passage’ suggests Julian Cleary’s editing the text. Yet Fraser’s warmth burns through this.

Since the production taking hints studs plebs, tribunes and servants with comedy (those who in Act IV don’t believe the pilgrim is Coriolanus) particularly in omitting more sober lines, inevitably comic feeling fringes this deeply serious bonding. Fraser’s reaction at the end lamenting over what he’s wrought is of a piece with mourning his better half gone.

There’s a useful gender-switch of roles in the tribunes, Eliot Levey’s wheeling, insinuating Junius Brutus, and Helen Schlesinger’s ferocious Sicinius – a tremendous performance here before she goes on to other Shakespearean roles. She and Levey enjoy too enjoy a brief complicit snog before proclaiming Coriolanus traitor. Jacqueline Botswain’s Valeria/Fourth Citizen) with other roles and Mark Stanley’s Second Citizen stab out from the multitude. The Citizen Smith attitudinising of First Citizen Roschenda Sandall etches distinctive marks but Alfred Enoch’s Titus Lartius is vocally distinctive too.

We’re left with a broken Coriolanus between the twin pillars of what he loves most. The scene where Volumnia and entourage, Coriolanus and Aufidius come together is climactic and beautifully drawn out here like the hollow faces the women present; but Shakespeare holds back Aufidius – rapidly recalibrating after earlier slights to a hurtling, startling conclusion.

It’s a Coriolanus memorable for politics sinewed with personal forces the central character’s torn apart by: an active interrogation of the nature of democracy. And by Hiddleston’s qualities recruited for a reading of someone riven by intimations of his true self round other core characters.

Six years on this production grows in stature.  Hiddleston’s not the classic ice-rasping Coriolanus of those mentioned above, still less of Ian Richardson and the young Toby Stephens. In him though with Rourke’s production we see a renewal of understanding.

Perhaps only opera could do justice to the skein of conflicted feelings here. Singularly, there was a musical Caius Martius featuring the young Peter Polycarpu at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1977; all who saw it agreed it should have transferred to the West End. Stranger things have happened to illuminate Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.