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Kate Maltby is on the board of the Bright Blue think tank and edits the Bright Blue magazine. She is researching a PhD on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I, at University College London.

Is there a more toxic cry than “plebs”? I’d bet my house that Andrew Mitchell never uttered the word during that notorious stand-off at the Downing Street gates last year. But if Mitchell wants to see himself played by a Hollywood heartthrob, he might find a grim consolation in popping down to the Donmar Warehouse’s Coriolanus to see Tom Hiddleston play Shakespeare’s military hero, whose disdain for the original Roman plebs costs him political power, his family and eventually his life.

Unlike Mitchell, Coriolanus really does hate plebs. But he’s still the victim of a set-up: home victorious from the wars, he’s all set to be consul until the elected tribunes of the people, the only democratic representatives in Rome as Shakespeare envisages it, goad and provoke him into publicly insulting the working class. And it’s not just the plebs he scorns, but any senator who gives them the time of day: “You are plebians, if they be senators!” he tells his fellow gents. Coriolanus’ problem, like that of so many military men, is with democracy.

So far, so Fascist. But Coriolanus should earn our modern sympathies as a sharp critic of spin. His enemies scheme and brief against him, whereas he scorns to display his war wounds to win votes. Because, at its heart, this is a play about persuasion. Coriolanus’ tragedy is that he doesn’t see the point of rhetoric: anyone noble enough to be worth persuading can make their minds up for themselves. Then when the women in his life finally do persuade him that he might be wrong, his world falls apart.

Josie Rourke’s production uses every trick in the book to prove Shakespeare’s point: that words are deeds, and scars are text. Coriolanus might not deign to show us his wounds, but Rourke reveals Hiddleston’s body to us in a gut-wrenching moment of sadistic voyeurism: showering under a Spartan drip of water, he gasps as his blood stains the spray red. Our response is visceral, not intellectual – so much for men who dismiss aesthetics.

Hiddleston himself is luminous with charisma. But, if it’s possible, he’s a touch too patrician even for Coriolanus. He’s noble to his fingertips, and one of the great verse speakers of his generation. Coriolanus is a snob – who better to play him than an old Etonian? – but he’s no wordsmith. Hiddleston is arrogant enough to convince, but he’s so in command of Shakespeare’s language in the early scenes that it’s hard to credit his rhetorical failure in the senate.

To be fair to Hiddleston, this is an eternal problem with Shakespeare’s text. Coriolanus is constantly staged, yet resents staging. Rourke’s production deftly exposes each twist and turn of this contradiction. See, for example, the scene when Coriolanus must ritually beg the populace for each individual vote. Hiddleston walks on stage like a medieval Christ en route to Calvary, a white shift exposing each contortion of a tortured body, his laurel wreath more reminiscent of a crown of thorns. This is a mystic world, where rose petals turn too readily into drops of blood.

There’s sensuality, too, in the form of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia. Sørensen’s presence is further proof that the Donmar’s production is aimed at fans of political soap opera – she’s better known as reporter Katrine Fonsmark from Denmark’s Borgen. Director Rourke lays down a marker of her commitment to feminist staging, converting a number of male parts into roles for actresses. So, as her tenure of the Donmar develops, I’m delighted that her superb all-female Julius Caesar is unlikely to be a one-off.  I also think she merits great credit for casting a number of talented non-white actors: each has earned their place, but many directors aren’t so colour-blind.

But she’s not above using Sørensen to set pulses raising. And in making one of Coriolanus’ populist opponents female, she blurs the gender politics of Shakespeare’s original. Coriolanus is a play about a man who doesn’t know how to deal with woman – because he never deals with them on the battlefield or in the Senate. In this version, with women in the Senate, his wife and mother’s climactic intervention on the battlefield feels less dramatic.

So Shakespeare’s focus on male-male relationships is lost. As Coriolanus’ opponent in war, Hadley Fraser is gruff and bearded, but oddly overplays the homoeroticism of the pair’s mutual admiration. These narcissistic erotics are very present in the text. But here the tension is crudely played for laughs, diluting its power.

Yet as a mirror of the diseased body politic, Rourke’s Coriolanus is outstanding. And there’s not a weak link in the cast. Hiddleston isn’t the only British film talent who proves his stage chops here: Alfie Enoch, better known as Harry Potter’s Dean Thomas, is compelling as Coriolanus’ young companion, Titus Lartius. Enoch’s put in serious work in London theatre over recent years – as 2013 comes to a close, he’s my one to watch. But Coriolanus belongs to Tom Hiddleston. And if his only fault is that he’s too intelligent, I can’t wait until he plays Hamlet.

> Coriolanus is on at the Donmar Warehouse until 8th February 2014.

3 comments for: Kate Maltby: Coriolanus – a man who really does hate the “plebs”

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