Yet another lockdown theatre release from the National with a star-studded cast. This time we're back on the Shakespeare with Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston in the titular role, Mark Gatiss as Menenius, and a fun surprise to find Dean from the Harry Potter franchise as Titus Lartius, the young General. Obviously, the cast were all fantastic, Hiddleston in particular playing a powerful – albeit quite unlikeable – Caius Martius Coriolanus whose heated wrath could be felt all the way through time and the TV screen, whilst Gatiss couldn't have been better cast.
As a production, it didn't actually take place at the National, but a smaller theatre elsewhere in London (I assume connected somehow). The much-reduced space was used to incredible effect, including often having the whole cast on stage, just seated on a row of chairs at the back. Particularly at the start of the play, this allowed those being actively discussed to simply stand up, so that you knew who they were before they technically appeared. As someone who has never seen or read the play, nor knows anything about the respective history, I found this gimmick incredibly useful and effective.
Without access to a great rotating set or huge, cavernous trap room, they had much less space to play with. Yet a simple demarcated square of tape, a ladder, some projection work, and very clever use of the flys (including liberal use of pouring stuff from them), combined with excellent lighting, meant you never noticed it. They somehow made the same black set look like battlefields, two culturally distinct cities, market places, senate buildings, and everything in between. Nothing ever stood out or grabbed your attention and that is absolutely why the magic was sold as well it was. Very clever indeed. Oh, and you have to mention both the liberal use of fake blood to really sell the berserker concept and the sheer stamina of Hiddleston for his final death, chained and gutted like an unfortunate denizen of an abattoir.
From the perspective of the story, as a tale it's pretty interesting. As I say, Coriolanus is not a particularly likeable individual. He's rude, arrogant, brash, and insufferably bigoted about class. Yet he does, ultimately, come off as the tragedy to the piece. His mother isn't much better; she's manipulative, arrogant, and scheming. The same could be said for the tribunes, but add smug to the list there as well, a folly that Menenius could easily be tarred with too. Then there is his wife, whose character and personality could be best summed up as: crying. Practically the only vaguely likeable person is Tullus, the General of the Volscians, but even he is just bitter and bent on revenge. It's also a lot less tragic than you would think. These aren't nice people, they meet terrible ends, and those endings are entirely of their own scheming.
Despite all of that, it's riveting. The dialogue was customarily brilliant, but the pacing almost felt modern. Unlike pretty much all Shakespeare plays I was transported along throughout the run time and the end actually felt like it had come early. Now it is a good bit shorter than some other plays, but still I was surprised. Perhaps the actors were just captivating but, whilst their performances were great, I feel like it might be the play itself. The result was a story I expected to find average and which on paper I should hate, ended up being really enjoyable.