New interview from The Guardian with as Coriolanus is going to be shown on National Live Theater channel on Youtube, read the interview below.
As Josie Rourke’s Donmar production of Shakespeare’s tragedy is streamed for National Theatre at Home, its star recalls the thrilling intimacy, the brutal fights – and the cold shower
Coriolanus is a play that’s more respected than revered. Why does it have a rather difficult reputation?
Coriolanus is relentless, brutal, savage and serious, but that’s why I find it interesting. Shakespeare sets the play in ancient Rome: a far older place than the Rome more familiar to us – of Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra or the later Empire. This Rome is wild. A city-state wrestling with its identity. An early Rome of famine, war and tyranny.
In the central character, Caius Martius Coriolanus, Shakespeare shows how the power of unchecked rage corrodes, dehumanises and ultimately destroys its subject. I’ve read that some find Martius a hard character to like, or to relate to – less effective at evoking an audience’s sympathy than Hamlet, Romeo, Juliet, Rosalind, Othello or Lear. Yet there is a perverse integrity and purity to be found in his obstinacy and honour, which sits alongside his arrogance and contempt.
The play’s poetry is raw and visceral, quite different from the elegance, beauty, clarity and charm found elsewhere in Shakespeare’s work. The warmth and delight to be found in his comedies are absent here. But the unstinting seriousness and intensity of the play is what makes it fascinating.
How well did you know the play?
I didn’t know it well. I had seen an early screening of Ralph Fiennes’s terrific film adaptation at the Toronto film festival in September of 2011. I was fascinated by the visceral intensity of the play: the power, hubris, and force of the title character; its lasting political resonance; and the immediacy and profundity of the familial relationships, particularly between mother and son – Volumnia and Martius – which struck me as perhaps the most intense and psychologically complex presentation of that bond I had come across in Shakespeare.
What drew you to Coriolanus as a character?
I was fascinated by the evolution of Martius/Coriolanus as a character through the play. His arc is purely tragic. He begins the play as Rome’s most courageous warrior, is quickly celebrated as its most fearsome defender, then garlanded by the Senate and selected for the highest political office.
His clarity of focus, fearlessness and ferocity of spirit, all qualities that make him a great soldier, undo him as a politician. His honesty and pride forbid him from disguising his contempt for the people of Rome, whom he deems weak, cowardly and fickle in their loyalties and affections. He cannot lie. “His heart’s his mouth / What his breast forges that his tongue must vent.” He becomes a tyrant, branded a traitor, an enemy of the people: an uncontained vessel of blistering rage. He is banished, changed “from man to dragon”. Joining forces with his sworn enemy, Aufidius, he plots revenge against Rome: “There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.” And then finally, at the very end, as he watches his own mother, wife and son kneel at his feet and beg for his mercy, he reveals – beneath the hardened exterior of contempt – a tenderness and vulnerability not seen before.
That shift, from splenetic warrior to merciless “dragon” to “boy of tears”, fascinated me – and the fact that his intransigence, valour and vulnerability all seem to be located in, and released by, his complex attachment to his mother.
How does this play about politics and people resonate in today’s society?
The play raises the question as to how much power should reside in the hands of any individual: a question that will never go out of date. “What is the city but the people?” cries the people’s tribune, Sicinius (in our production, brilliantly played by Helen Schlesinger). The people must have their voices. And, beneath that, I think the play also raises another complex question as to what degree any individual can withstand the intensity of idealisation and demonisation that comes with the mantle of unmoderated leadership or extraordinary responsibility.
It’s a physical role – how did you prepare for it with fight director Richard Ryan?
Josie Rourke and I knew it was important to the clarity of the play that Martius be credibly presented as a physical presence. As a warrior, we are told, he “struck Corioles like a planet”. Big boots to fill. Hadley Fraser, who plays Aufidius, and I began working with Richard Ryan three months before we started full rehearsals on the text of the play. The fight between Martius and Aufidius is a huge opportunity to explore their mutual obsession (“He is a lion that I am proud to hunt”).
We also hoped there would be something thrilling about presenting it at such close quarters in the confined space of the Donmar. We wanted to create a moment of combat that was visceral, brutal and relentless. We knew it would require skill, safety and endless practice. The fight choreography became something we drilled, every day. Hadley was amazing. So committed, so disciplined. It created a real bond of trust between us.
You previously starred in Othello at the Donmar. What’s special about that space?
The Donmar is one of the most intimate spaces in London. I must have seen at least a hundred productions there over the last 20 years, and as an audience member it always feels like a thrill and a privilege to feel so close to the action. There’s a forensic clarity to the space: the audience are so close that they see every movement, every look. For actors, there’s nowhere to hide. That’s exciting.
It’s what makes the Donmar special: the closeness, the proximity. Hard to imagine in the wake of Covid-19. Theatres everywhere need all the support they can get. But that’s what’s encouraging about National Theatre at Home. It’s keeping theatre going, but it’s also a reminder that the sector will need real support to stay alive: from the government and from us, the people who love and cherish it.
There is a rather bloody shower scene – what are your memories of that moment?
I remember that the water was extremely cold. But I was always grateful, because the preceding 20 minutes – scurrying up ladders, down fire escapes, into quick changes and sword fights – had been so physically intense that the cold water felt like a great relief. Martius says to Cominius just moments beforehand: “I will go wash / And when my face is fair you shall perceive / Whether I blush or no.” So I washed.
The scene did have a thematic significance. So much of the play, and the poetry of the play, is loaded with references and characters who are obsessed by the body of Martius as an object: how much blood he has shed for his city; how many scars he bears as emblems of his service. His mother, Volumnia (?in our production played with such power and clarity by Deborah Findlay), says in a preceding scene that blood “more becomes a man than gilt his trophy”. Later, during the process of his election to the consulship, to the highest office, Martius is obliged by tradition to go out into the marketplace and display his wounds, in a bid to court public approval; to win the people’s voices. Martius refuses, in contempt for both practice and people.
In the shower scene, Josie wanted the audience to be able to see the wounds that he refuses to show the people later on, but we also wanted to suggest the reality of what those scars have cost him privately. We wanted to show him wincing, in deep pain: that these wounds and scars are not some highly prized commodity, but that beneath the exterior of the warrior-machine, idealised far beyond his sense of his own worth, is a human being who
It’s an intense performance, in a three-hour play. How did you unwind after the show?
My first thought is that I was always unbelievably hungry. Thankfully, Covent Garden is not short of places to buy a hamburger. I will always be grateful to all of them.
How did you modify your performance for the NT Live filming?
The whole production for NT Live was very much the same as it was every night during our 12-week run. Naturally, as a company, we couldn’t help but be aware of cameras on all sides, especially in a space like the Donmar. We were all so grateful that the National Theatre Live team had come over the river to the Donmar. I always hoped the broadcast would capture the headlong intensity of the whole thing. The play opens with a riot, and does not stop.
What have you been watching during lockdown?
I was gripped, moved and inspired by The Last Dance, the documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the mid-90s (Steve Kerr!). Normal People for its two extraordinary central performances from Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. I’ve rewatched old tennis matches, which somehow I have found very comforting: in particular, the 2014 Djokovic/Federer Wimbledon final. And – because we all need cheering up – Dirty Dancing.