The emblematic figure of this production is not Tom Hiddleston in the central role, but Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as his wife Virgilia. In a production about the political importance of image and how a single person can shape an entire state’s polity, the actor who played reporter-turned-spin-doctor Katrine Fønsmark in the compelling Danish TV series Borgen should be in her element. Unfortunately, Virgilia is one of the most thankless roles in all of Shakespeare; the whole point is her passivity and marginality. Sørensen gives much excellent “listening” acting, but she probably utters fewer words than any other woman on the Donmar stage. And in Josie Rourke’s production, there are more women than the script suggests, which may be problematic in itself.
We should never be afraid of cross-gender casting in classics. However, in this particular case, Coriolanus is a play about machismo. War hero Caius Martius is so macho even by the standards of 5th century BC Rome that feminising some of the roles (including one of the tribunes of the people) dilutes the background of a martial culture against which Martius (subsequently named Coriolanus for one of his victories) stands out. Moreover, the glaring exception of Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia is also written the way she is in order to shame the men, including at the climax her own son. Rourke has made the world of the play, of this drama of pride and selfishness, too damn reasonable.
Within such a world, though, the main performances are exemplary. Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia is firm but clearly not unfeeling, shown most graphically when she leads Coriolanus’s family to petition him not to attack Rome in concert with the city’s enemies the Volsci. As Coriolanus himself, Tom Hiddleston is less surly and more lucid than I have ever seen the character.
Even when reluctantly presenting himself for approval for public office, and especially when he is banished from the city for his arrogance toward the plebs and again when succumbing to his mother’s arguments towards the end, Hiddleston has an eloquence and an understanding of what Martius is saying that the character himself doesn’t usually have as the words just tumble out of him. As I have felt about so many productions this year, clarity, while admirable in itself, comes at the expense of dramatic power.