Since Josie Rourke took over the artistic directorship of the Donmar Warehouse from Michael Grandage, the theatre has already scored one major Shakespearean success with the all-female Julius Caesar (directed by Phyllida Lloyd) that subsequently transferred to New York earlier this year. Now Rourke makes her own Shakespearean debut at her home theatre with another of Shakespeare's Roman plays Coriolanus, and like Grandage and Lloyd before her, finds this intimate studio space igniting her own imagination as well as that of her stunningly well-cast actors and the audience itself.
This is both a conspiratorial and combative theatre arena, ideal for illuminating Shakespeare's tense exploration of the exile and downfall of a once-victorious warrior Caius Marcius who is put on a pedestal by his fellow citizens and redubbed Coriolanus, but is exiled by them, too, when he seeks to overreach the powers that have been given to him. When he returns hate with hate and returns to attack his former home city of Rome with Aufidius - his one-time enemy turned ally with whom this production suggests there is a deeper, homoerotic bond - he seals his own fate when he listens to the pleadings of his mother, wife and young son to spare the city.
The excitement, as ever, comes in the close-up proximity that we're put at with the actors, and the clear, uncluttered momentum that the director can achieve in this space. And the Donmar, which has always specialised in star casting, also delivers a major coup by offering the return to the London stage of Tom Hiddleston in the title role. Hiddleston, of course, began his career on the London stage with companies like Cheek by Jowl and was seen in the Donmar's production of Chekhov's Ivanov opposite Kenneth Branagh at Wyndham's, and it is inspiring to see him returning and owning the stage again after becoming a major movie star, best known for playing Loki in the Thor films as well as appearing in the film versions of War Horse and The Deep Blue Sea as well as The Avengers.
He is superb as the bloodied warrior at the beginning of the play, and has an astonishing moment when he takes a bare-chested onstage shower (though he keeps his trousers on) to wash away the blood. But he grows in more textured complexity as his own certainties wash away, too, as the play progresses.
But this is also far from a one-man show. Rourke's production lends him rich and detailed support all around, not least from those seeking to undermine him in Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger who are creepily insinuating as the tribunes of the people. Hadley Fraser, hitherto best known for musicals but who recently also starred in the world premiere of Matt Charman's The Machine for Rourke in Manchester and New York, lends a Northern accented, heavily bearded appeal to Aufidius, and is well contrasted with Mark Gatiss as Coriolanus's patrician senator supporter Menenius.
As the women in Coriolanus's life, Deborah Findlay and Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as his overbearing mother and worried wife respectively lend the play a fierce gravitas and humanity respectively.
Together, this company bring a fierce intensity and immediacy to this visceral, violently charged political drama. This is Shakespeare that is up close, shocking and powerful; and even though all performances at the Donmar are sold out (except for the Barclays Front Row seats, released two weeks ahead of the week they're being sold for), there is a chance to catch it in cinemas around the UK on January 30 as part of an NT Live screening.
"... though this is a flawed production, there is no mistaking its dramatic energy ..."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"Even if I have a few niggles, this is a thoroughly good evening."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Its quite numerous good points are diminished by silly directorial touches ..."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"... this is a tense and thoughtful account of one of Shakespeare’s less admired works. "
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard