Theatre Review: Coriolanus // National Theatre

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Photo Credit: Johan Persson

At a time when our world appears unrecognisable, where the very crux of democracy is being questioned as we are denied our liberties for the sake of public health in this pandemic, and as many people all over the world fight for basic human rights, Coriolanus has rarely seemed so relevant.

Caius Martius, later renamed Coriolanus after his heroic victory against the Volscian city of Corioles, seals his own fate by underestimating the power of the people.

Photo Credit: Johan Perrson

Although perhaps one of Shakespeare’s less well-known plays, Tom Hiddleston’s charged performance allows us to unpack the complexities of his character as he oscillates between family duty and a soldier’s pride. However, it was Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ fiery mother, who stole the show; although it may appear that this show is about an arrogant soldier out for revenge on an ungrateful rabble and the state which exiled him, it is equally about the role of a mother. Contrary to the dated stereotype, Volumnia holds a great deal of power in Rome via her son, and she refuses to stay quiet while her son makes a mess of his position in power. She is far from humble, taking credit for her son’s achievements and aggressively demanding that he obey her requests whenever diplomacy is required. While the family relationships are not fully explored in the piece, the mother-son dynamic we see on stage drives the narrative and, in the end, causes the protagonist’s downfall.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

The pertinence of this piece in 2020 can be seen through the questions Shakespeare poses, such as: what are the consequences of arrogance and hubris in a leader? How easy is it to manipulate the population? Is it enough to demand power through one’s bloodline, or should it be earned? All these questions are meaningfully explored in this performance as Coriolanus’ sense of entitlement, mixed with his underestimation of the very people he was born to govern, leads inexorably to a disastrous outcome.

The production was modern and stripped back, focusing the audience’s attention on the human relationships onstage; however, at times it felt too bare, with little signal of a change of location. However, a relatively sparse set became Rome with simple props and set design paired with clever lighting. Hiddleston battle wounds were skilfully executed, and Aufidius’ drenching of himself in Coriolanus’ blood as he hangs by his feet onstage was a technical triumph.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

The exploration of male identity and its interconnected relationship with strength, battle and victory is explored in the piece as Coriolanus succumbs to anger and revenge then finds himself pulled in direct opposition by love, tenderness and loyalty. Tom Hiddleston gives an enchanting performance, as we see how being too honest and fearless can give rise to unintended consequences.

War and conflict are tropes that run through the play, and whether real or metaphorical, we as a society are always at war, whether that be with other countries, at war with one another on political decisions, at war with ideological beliefs that underpin the workings of the state.

Photo Credit: Johan Perrson

As the world protests against engrained and institutional racism, Coriolanus reminds us of the power we can have as a people; the power for long-lasting, unprecedented change.

Words by Mhari Aurora.

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