London Review: Coriolanus

Nora Galland 6 February 2014

It was in the Donmar Warehouse that this breathtaking production of Coriolanus took place and this changed everything. Rourke and her crew accepted the challenge to put on this Shakespeare play about war, fight and movement in a very little theatrical space with no wings and surrounded by the audience, only a few feet away.

At the very beginning of the play, Young Martius (Joe Willis) entered the stage with a bucket of red paint in one hand and a brush in the other – marking the stage with a large quadrangle of fresh paint that would be blurred throughout the performance. This arena-like space within the space acted as a constant reminder of war – whether past or impending. In this performance, all sorts of war were portrayed: conflicts between enemies, friends turned enemies or a competition between “frenemies”; and everyone was concerned by war, whether the child playing with his wooden sword or the wife sewing her husband’s banner with her mother-in-law. But in this world in which the cult of war meant everything, Martius/Coriolanus (Tom Hiddleston) faced an enemy he could not defeat: the people of Rome.

Rourke used the vertical space of the stage by making the only wall of the stage a living entity standing for the plebeians – reacting as the ebb and flow of the protest. Fluorescent graffiti was made visible on the wall throughout the production. Thus, the plebeians’ voice was highlighted with such inscriptions: “annona plebs” meaning “the corn to the people”, “not our own price” or the powerful “it shall be so”. It is significant that Rourke used graffiti, a contemporary form of protest to voice the demands of the plebs. Against this disembodied enemy, Coriolanus had no chance. Even before being banished by the “it shall be so” passage, Coriolanus’ banishment was foreshowed by his being segregated in a little black quadrangle that the tribunes painted on the floor earlier.

On top of this creative use of space, Rourke also used significant props: while plebeians were represented by red ballot papers, petals of red roses stood for patricians. Though the plebeians and the patricians were given different symbols, they were both connected by the red colour.

Precisely, this idea of paradoxical connection was highly emphasized by this amazing production.

So, the relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) was first made ambiguously interesting with an erotic kiss and a passionate hug. Then, when Coriolanus came back from Corioli, covered with blood, he cleaned himself up with some water showering down his face. Later, Aufidius knelt down to wash his own face with this same mix of Coriolanus’ blood and water. In the end, when Coriolanus was hung by the feet to be killed by Aufidius, the latter took his knife, weeping, and disemboweled his greatest enemy. While Coriolanus was slowly bleeding to death, Aufidius knelt down under the corpse to receive his blood on his face, as he opened his arms in a Christ-like position. This echoes the legend of Mithras who slayed a bull, according to the principles of a Persian religion practiced in the Roman Empire. The blood of this creature was used in a ritual of purification and redemption performed to bring about peace and light. Do we have to understand that Coriolanus’ blood is a blessing or a curse?


Coriolanus is at the Donmar Warehouse until the 8th February, and will be showing at The Arts Picturehouse on the 13th February