Shakespeare really does hate the common people – the plebeians , or plebs as we might call them today. His heroes, even the tragic ones, often give voice to the Bard’s own thoughts and in this Roman play, as in Julius Caesar , his chief character has no time for the fickle, downright stupid common masses.
As the manipulators of the masses – their elected tribunes – get in their piece of dirty work right at the beginning of the play, we tend to sympathise with the returning military hero Caius Marcius’ low opinion of the great unwashed. His best friend, the entirely honest and trustworthy Menenius, played with beautiful sardonic humour by Mark Gatiss has also got the measure of the crowd: “ You know neither me, yourselves or anything” he scornfully tells them.
But every tragic hero has a flaw – and boy does Tom Hiddleston as Marcius, later crowned Coriolanus, go hell for leather at it – proud, haughty, unyielding to popular opinion , he’s destined for a fall from the very moment of his exaltation by his fellow nobles on the Senate.
Though it’s a play apparently about warfare, there’s only one tiny fight – between Caius and his long-term enemy Aufidius, and even that is inconclusive.
This is a play built upon long set-piece public speeches – orations really, much in the manner of Henry V or Othello, and there’s very little action to speak of. On the small Donmar stage space with the audience on three sides, director Josie Rourke keeps the action swift and highly regimented and the characters sit or stand among the audience for much of the play.
Hiddleston is handsome, charismatic, younger than most previous players of the part, and sometimes as fickle as the crowd he so loathes.
Deborah Findlay as his mother Volumnia, is feisty, opinionated and unbending – you can see where the boy gets it from. She glories in his military prowess, delighted when he’s wounded as he’s got proof of his victories.
The most emotionally draining scene in the play is her heartfelt pleas for her hero son turned enemy of the people , to broker a peace with Rome. It’s tear-jerking stuff and close-ups of Hiddleston show genuine watery eyes.
Menenius, eventually spurned by Coriolanus, tellingly sums him up : “ His nature’s too noble for the world”
And so it proves.
Coriolanus is on YouTube until Thursday 11 June. If you watch please consider a donation to either the National or the Donmar to keep theatre alive.
Watch it on Youtube for free here: