Tom Hiddleston is brutal and bloody in ‘Coriolanus’

Theatergoers, search high and low for your nearest London National Theatre Live encore performance location for screenings of Tom Hiddleston as the lead character in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.”

Of course, if you’re a bit snobby like The Guardian’s reviewer, Ryan Gilbey, you might be annoyed at the introduction hosted by Emma Freud. While my husband and I don’t enjoy the usual pre-film ads that come with regular movies, but we do enjoy having a knowledgeable host like Freud, who is not an actor but a cultural commentator (and great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud) and the short interviews with the lead actors, the director and designers that comment upon the history of the Donmar Warehouse, the production and their portrayals.

We are frequent viewers of PBS “Great Performances” and that helps as well as being frequent theatergoers (gas being the current limitation on that). We are used to having a host and getting extras that could easily become part of a DVD. Gilbey writes that he dislikes DVD extras.

In the theater at live shows, we are used to reading the program which usually includes production and director’s notes. We’ve attended Q&A sessions and panel discussions held after a performance and we are likely to read feature articles published prior to the opening of theatrical productions as well.  The introductions and interviews serve as a respectable replacement for these.

Of course, televised performances can’t replace the visceral experience of being in a theater where one can feel the electricity of a performance, or, perhaps, even come into physical contact with the players. Yet increasingly these screenings, live and encore, bring us as close as one can hope for without being there.

The National Theatre in particular has taken great pains to make the films of its productions seem less stagey and confined. That’s easier when the interpretation is in a smaller theater where the actual production is meant to feel cozy and at times claustrophobic. We get to see what the audience sees and more.

Shakespeare’s tragedy is based on a real person: Roman leader Caius Marcius who later earned the surname of Coriolanus.  The actual person is believed to have lived during the 5th century BC.  The legend of Coriolanus tells the story of betrayal. Coriolanus was a general who was honored by Rome for his actions during a Roman siege on Corioli, a city in Volscian. However, Coriolanus was later exiled from Rome. He then went on to lead a Volscian army in a siege against Rome.

In December of 2013, the Donmar Warehouse premiered this new production of  “Coriolanus.”  The Donmar Warenouse only seats 251 patrons and is located in Covent Garden, London. Running from 6 December 2013 and ending 13 February 2014, the tickets quickly sold out.

This is a stripped down version of “Coriolanus.” Don’t expect period costumes–from the 5th Century BC or even the 1600s when it was written. Under the direction of Josie Rourke, this production doesn’t try for royal pageantry and instead we have graffiti on a bare brick wall, a room represented by a bright red rectangle on a concrete floor, and costumes that mix both contemporary urban fashion with the suggestion of armors of the past (Lucy Osborne production designer).

The play opens with a quick introduction to the problems that will plague Caius Martius. The Tarquin kings have been expelled, but the ordinary citizens aren’t thankful. They are in the streets complaining and rioting. They blame Roman general Caius Martius for taking away their grain supply. Yet who is really to blame?

While patrician Menenius Agrippa (Mark Gatiss) and Caius Martius (Hiddleston) try to calm the plebeians, Caius Martius displays open contempt. How are these citizens worthy of the grain? They did not fight the enemies of Rome. Two tribunes of Rome, Brutus (Elliot Levey) and Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger), lurk in the shadows. They don’t like Martius, but they don’t fight either.

Martius fights underneath the command of Cominius. But it is Maritus who leads a rally against the Volscian city and forces open the gates so that the Romans can enter and conquer. Martius also meets the commander of the Volscian Army, Tullus Aufidius (Hadley Fraser), in combat. Their hand-to-hand combat ends at a draw.

Martius has his courage recognized with the name Coriolanus. His mother, Volumnia (Deborah Findlay), exults in his deeds and his bloody scars while his wife Virgilia (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) feels horror at his potential death. Volumnia pushes her son to become a consul and while he wins the support of the Roman Senate easily, his support from the commoners fades under the careful plotting of Brutus and Sicinia who expose Coriolanu’s distain of the commoners.

Banished and without a country, Coriolanus boldly offers himself to Aufidius. Instead of killing him, Aufidius is moved and he embraces Coriolanus. They join forces in a new military action against Rome. Coriolanus knows all of the strengths and weaknesses of Rome and despite the entreaties of his former friends, he is unmoved and determined to crush Rome. But when his mother, wife Virgilia and son come to plead against the destruction of Rome, he is moved.

Yet his friendships with the Volscian generals and leaders had already become strained. Aufidius complains that Coriolanus leads instead of follows. So there is little empathy for Coriolanus when his heart softens and he asks Aufidius and his circle what they would have done differently having heard the entreaties of mother, wife and child? Would they not have also been moved to peace? Aufidius kills him for betraying their original plan.

Hiddleston’s Coriolanus  isn’t the pleasant and happy-go-lucky Hal we first met in the BBC “The Hollow Crown” series. Nor is this the King Henry who has outgrown his old companion and heads toward a short-lived tender marriage. This is a blood-thirsty warrior who is convinced against his own intuitions to become a politician. Yet the very thing that makes him a good warrior–contempt for humans that he considers somehow inferior to himself–make him a poor politician.

This was war before canons and guns, before technology allowed warriors and soldiers to distance themselves from their enemies farther than the flight of an arrow. This is war before we had the terms “shell shock” or the more modern “post-traumatic stress disorder.” And it was a war before we had the term “canon fodder” but not before lives deemed less worthy were decisively sacrificed.  What kind of man can cut other men down, face to face, and yet go back for more?  If the PBS Masterpiece Theatre has given us a high-functioning sociopath in “Sherlock,” then here with the Donmar Theater production we have a more murderous one courtesy the National Theatre Live.

Rourke’s production may not have the pageantry but it has the gore. Hiddleston’s Coriolanus comes forth at one point bloodied and very convincingly scarred.  Coriolanus has many scars. Each cut and each gush of blood seem to excite Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia as if she was a vampire, lusting to lick the very blood off of her son. Such ambition seems foreign to Sorensen’s Virgilia who’d rather not think of the killing. Fraser’s Aufidius is brutish and you have no doubt that he wants the raping and pillaging to commence. His disappointment can only be fulfilled with the ugly death of Corialanus.

This “Coriolanus” is exciting and brutal, especially compared to the 2011 British film starring Ralph Fiennes who was also making his directorial debut. Fiennes modern-day version of “Coriolanus”  is currently available to stream on Netflix.

Hiddleston’s “Coriolanus” is currently only available as an encore performance as selected venue. See it before it ends is run later this year. For times and venues, visit the National Theatre Live website.

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