January 1 2014
At Hix Soho, on the assured recommendation of Finbar, the would-be artist /sculptor with a Fine Arts degree and a nice touch in tap-dancing while serving tables, my daughter and I shared a Sussex Pond Pudding, one of those lush, lavish, incredibly sweet, syrupy and utterly delicious English boiled puddings, perfect for a rainy, cold Winter's evening, especially when lashed with cream – and at its centre was a surprise bermagot. Luxuriating with this perfect dessert meant a slight rush to the Donmar where Josie Rourke's production of Coriolanus is now playing.
We ought not to have bothered.
Rather like the bermagot in the Sussex Pond Pudding, Tom Hiddleston is the centrepiece of this production. But that is where the similarity to the pudding ends.
Hiddleston has been exemplary in previous Donmar productions – a perfect Cassio in Othello and a masterful, detailed and defining Doctor Lvov in Invanov – and he is easily the best actor at work in this production, but, alas, Rourke's directorial “vision” cripples every aspect of Shakespeare's play.
Whatever one might think about Grandage or Hytner productions of Shakespeare, almost always they tell the story with clarity. They might lack verve or vision or even a foundation idea, but they let the audience understand the story, why things happen and how. The only part of Rourke's Coriolanus which is truly tragic is her contribution: the lack of understanding, the absence of clarity, the failure to tell the story.
As Act One trundles along, there is absolutely no sense that anyone on stage has any idea what they are doing or why. The blank faces staring at the audience, the counter-intuitive staging which robs intimate moments of their intimacy, the screaming, the false imposed humour, the risible sense of the power of the language: this is as lamentable as a professional production of Shakespeare can be.
Deborah Findlay is a great actress but her Volumnia is completely unfathomable. Like some ghastly wind-up doll she staggers and chews the scenery and there is never an inkling of the power game that ought to play out between her and Hiddleston's Coriolanus. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Virgilia, wife to Coriolanus, appears to think she is in a different play to everyone else, her manner and approach being entirely out of kilter. She should stick to Borgen. Mark Gatiss is understated as Menenius (which is a mercy) but nothing ever gels about his character or purpose.
In the excruciating basket are Elliot Levey as Brutus (an over-articulator more interested in himself and the sound of his own voice than being part of an ensemble), Rochenda Sandall as First Citizen (honestly, stop that nasal screaming), Helen Schlesinger as Sicinia (never mind the character's sex change, just act) and Mark Stanley as Second Citizen (village moron). Peter de Jersey is not bad as Cominus but then he is not good either.
Hadley Fraser gets by as Aufidius (what a beard!) but the fight scenes look more balletic than dangerous hand to hand combat and there is not enough sense of the mortal enemy status with which Aufidius and Coriolanus regard each other.
Hiddleston certainly looks the part and when he makes his first entrance, the sense of electric excitement he generates is palpable. He handles some of the speeches extremely well and he is totally committed to making Rourke's vision succeed.
The trouble is that that vision cannot succeed because, in truth, there is no vision. Her choices are all poor. She makes much of a moment when Hiddleston showers in pain, stripped to the waist, displaying to the audience his finely toned body and the scars of battle he has just gained in his fight with Aufidius. It is one of those “see the movie star strip” moments which is inherently cringeworthy, but which Hiddleston makes works by his total conviction. However, it makes his character's subsequent refusal to display his scars to the plebeians who are clamouring to see them that much more mystifying. By adding the shower scene, Rourke creates a problem the text does not have and obfuscates the issues really at play.
No doubt, with a good director, Hiddleston could be a thrilling Coriolanus – but not with Rourke. We should have stayed with the Sussex Pond Pudding.