When Tom Hiddleston, Mark Gatiss, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and the cast of the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Coriolanus came face to face with Shakespeare’s First Folio it was a day to remember
“Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe: And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to vnderstand him.” The sentiment has been parroted by exasperated generations of English teachers. The words themselves belong to two actors whose names are not well known, but to whom world culture owes a debt somewhat larger than, say, Greece does to the Bundesbank.
In 1623, the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s works was published by John Heminge and Henry Condell. Without them, there is no telling how many – or few – of Shakespeare’s plays would have survived for posterity, nor in what condition. The latest company to benefit from the foresight of Heminge and Condell is crowded round one of the most perfect of the many editions of the First Folio still in existence. Their faces will be familiar from other contexts: Loki from the Thor franchise, Kristine the TV journalist from Borgen and one of those blokes off The League of Gentlemen.
This is the Donmar Warehouse’s cast for its new production of Coriolanus, starring Tom Hiddleston as the warrior-politician, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as his wife Virgilia and Mark Gatiss as Menenaus. Also in the cast are Hadley Fraser as Aufidius and Deborah Findley as Coriolanus’s terrifying mother Volumnia. Here in the Chief Commoner’s Parlour, a mock Elizabethan room in the Old Library of the Guildhall in the City of London, the all but holy book is open at “Actus Primus. Scena Prima” of The Tragedie of Coriolanus. Hiddleston sits and reads from the tome as it rests on a small beanbag.
“Here he comes and in the gown of humility,” he intones, then pauses. “Wow, that is amazing.” He flicks a few pages then embarks on a speech of Caius Martius, as the titular general is known. “Oh me alone, make you a sword of me.” “Couple of notes in that, Tom,” pipes up someone. The whole cast laughs.
This outing is by way of a getting-to-know-you session organised by their director Josie Rourke. “It’s always handy at the beginning of rehearsal to have some form of cast trip,” she says, watching indulgently from the side like a school teacher with a group of years nines. “They’re enormously excited about it. It’s great to connect them with Shakespeare.”