It was a tough task, struggling through hordes of fainting Japanese schoolgirls, fund managers and culturati connected enough to access Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse. Now primus inter pares among the Old Etonian thesps boosting the UK’s trade balance with Hollywood, his presence had tickets going for well over £1,000 at the peak of Coriola-mania.
Let’s not kid ourselves that this was due to an outbreak of enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s uncompromising late play about the tensions of supercilious elites and the bolshie masses. The main man was the draw and the “boy of tears” repaid the faith with a pacey, passionate performance. Rangy and with a sense of entitlement, his was a very different Coriolanus from Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of the hero as a surly killing machine in the recent screen version. Hiddleston’s lithe bearing and light voice emphasised the warrior’s youth and helped explain his temper tantrums as the product of immaturity, not just vengeful snobbery.
The action turns on a fatal flaw, punished by deft political trickery from the Roman version of the Falkirk constituency trade unionists. An unscripted sex-change turned Sicinius into a woman: fair enough under the Equal Opportunities Act, even if having Sicinius romantically embroiled with her fellow tribune Brutus took us a bit off-piste. Coriolanus reads well on the page, but poses challenges on stage — Shakespeare gets so carried away by the hero’s scabrous denunciations of the “common cry of curs, whose breath I hate as reek o’ the rotten fens,” that he virtually writes the same scene twice, setting up the hero for a conflict with the plebeians which will “mar all”. Hiddleston dealt with this by moving from outright spleen to a more alienating sneer and chilly exhibition of top-doggery, as he snatched voting slips out of the hands of the vacillating voters.
Coriolanus reads well on the page, but poses challenges on stage — Shakespeare gets so carried away by the hero’s scabrous denunciations of the “common cry of curs, whose breath I hate as reek o’ the rotten fens,” that he virtually writes the same scene twice, setting up the hero for a conflict with the plebeians which will “mar all”. Hiddleston dealt with this by moving from outright spleen to a more alienating sneer and chilly exhibition of top-doggery, as he snatched voting slips out of the hands of the vacillating voters. The star count being high at the Donmar, Virgilia was played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, the sensuous spin-doctor in the Scandi-drama Borgen. Here, she irked Volumnia (Deborah Findlay, a marvellous maternal dragon) by alternating between “faint puling” and snogging her husband. If there was a major fault it was over-styling. Though I have nothing against the sight of Mr Hiddleston’s pert rear clad in flattering black jeans tucked into Dr Martens, the effect was more Camden Market than Corioli. The director, Josie Rourke, atoned for such vogueishness by adding dynamism to a play that can seem ponderous. The scenes in which the wounded Coriolanus showers droplets across the blood-drenched stage was thrilling if you took an interest in Hiddleston’s torso but chilling even if you did not. Rourke tweaked the ending to suggest a trap long set by Tullus Aufidius, an innovation which strained the text but produced an enthrallingly nasty inverted death.
I was less convinced by Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius, played with such overt longing for his frenemy that we dwelt on the lust and lost the play’s emphasis on his own martial prowess as “a lion that I am proud to hunt”. Far more convincing was Mark Gatiss as the oily patrician Menenius, a dead ringer for every slippery sort you’ve ever seen wheedling in front of a Commons select committee. There’s a lot more Shakespeare in Mr Gatiss yet. Over at the National until the end of May, Sam Mendes serves up Simon Russell Beale as an unloveable but physically compelling Lear. His is a kingdom divided in the tradition of Calixto Bieito’s famously unsentimental Catalan production, which showed el rey as a bully and powermonger: more totalitarian than pitiful.
The setting is a cavernous stage, with clanging metal doors, a steep upward ramp and all the home comforts of an eastern European dictatorship on its last legs. From the dramatic irony of his opening gambit, “Know that we have divided/In three our kingdom”, Russell Beale’s stooped monarch is obsessed by imperious ways, blind to his own weakened circumstances and the character of others. He excels at corporeal decline, all Parkinsonian tremor, wobbly gait, wild mood-swings and pale tree-trunk legs.
At times, the performance skirts close to a trap that awaits actors as prolific as Russell Beale, namely that tics and delivery meander from one production into another. In his ravings, this Lear is a dead ringer for Russell Beale’s outstanding turn recently as the lunatic asylum boss in Pinter’s The Hothouse. Fortunately, this sense of déjà vu recedes as the extraordinary darkness of the drama gathers force and Lear’s frailty confronts the worst that fate can throw at him. The Fool (Adrian Scarborough) looks like a remnant of better days in the music hall, with his jaunty pork-pie hat and melancholy delivery. He meets his end in a bath-tub, slain by his maddened master: a plot refinement too far, methinks. Occasional lapses aside, Mendes’s direction has a raw power and some crafty female touches in a play which is unkind to hell-cats. Kate Fleetwood as Goneril is ruthless and status-obsessed, while Anna Maxwell Martin’s Regan purrs like a kittenish vamp as she foments violence. Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) shows up towards the end, stomping around in a field hospital (truly, you cannot keep today’s directors away from the bovver boots). We end on a high note, with Russell Beale’s “Never, never” speech finely cadenced to begin with incomprehension and finish as a cracked honk of despair. If we lose some of the wit of Lear along the way, this incarnation does not sell itself short on the grief.
From Ancient Rome and Dark Age Britain to Tsarist Russia, where yet another dysfunctional society combines with rampant greed and deranged relatives to cause chaos in Turgenev’s savage comedy of provincial idiocy, Fortune’s Fool. The Old Vic’s production launches itself full tilt at this tale of dolts, sots and troublesome family secrets on a Russian estate. True, it’s not the smoothest of Russian mid-19th century dramas (most of the plot turns are signalled with the sophistication of a steam engine), but Mike Poulton’s adaptation and William Houston’s veering moods as the hapless landowner Kuzovkin conceal the play’s flaws and find its heart. The pair and director Lucy Bailey gave us a terrific Uncle Vanya at the Print Room studio theatre two years ago, proof that you don’t always need billboard names to create a tour de force. They deserve a medal for cultural services to Mother Russia, though preferably not from the hands of Vladimir Putin.