After touting the National Theater Live on this blog here , I experienced it for myself Thursday, when I saw Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston in the title role and backed up by a truly fine cast. NTLive is my new favorite thing. In some ways, the audience gets the best of both worlds: live theater but with the added advantage of close-up and good camera work. Though in this case, because the Donmar Warehouse is so intimate ( 250 seats set in a “U” ) I’m guessing the live audience was able to see the actor’s facial expressions and even the occasional flying spit.
There are plenty of reviews of Coriolanus out there, as well as blog posts describing the production, including the plot ((Variety mirrors my impression as does Herba , in German and see also The Guardian), so I’m going to plow right on with what I thought were the highlights.
First up is Josie Rourke’s creative and restrained hand in modernizing and humanizing the play without resorting to distracting, anachronistic tricks that others have used in translating Shakespeare.(i.e., the Public Theater’s 1993 production of Henry V with Brooklyn accents, swimming pools and toilet scenes, and a production of Titus Andonicus set in the Jazz Age.) She’s chosen to soften the classic oratorical style popular with Shakespeare in favor of a more natural, conversational style – without touching the text at all.
This is most apparent in scenes where she injects humor into the delivery and stage directions wherever possible and appropriate, for example when Coriolanus ( Tom Hiddleston) is being lectured by his relentlessly ambitious mother ( Deborah Findlay), or almost always, except in one notable instance, in the speeches of politician / father figure, Menenius ( Mark Gattis).
I loved the costumes, which were a blend of street wear with Etruscan touches, giving the feel of downtown sort of street wear.
(Click over Images)
The early scenes between Coriolanus and his mother, Volumnia, establish how well loving mother and son know each other’s methods and pushable buttons,a realistic depiction, I thought (eclipsing the marriage relationship between Coriolanus and Virgilia played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) and not really apparent in the written play, or for that matter, in the Ralph Fiennes film version. These early scenes make the final confrontation between mother and son, when Volumnia begs her son to allow Rome to sue for peace, wrenchingly powerful.
One of my favorite scenes at least as I interpreted the direction, was a giant nod to the leading man, Tom Hiddleston, who was voted Sexiest Man in the World. In essence, Rourke put him on the red carpet. I have no idea if anyone else saw the scene as I did, and it’s possible that recent events colored my view. But, this is how I saw it:
In this scene, Coriolanus returns home victorious with the idea (his mother’s idea, that is) of being named Consul, which requires that certain customs be followed to gain the vox populi, including exhibiting one’s wounds, meeting the rabble in a gown of humility and begging for votes, or voices.
The problem is Coriolanus holds the people in low regard, believing that only patricians should rule. His pride and honest belief in the superiority of his class, make it near impossible for him to sublimate his true nature and pander to the crowd. Nevertheless at the urging of others, especially his mother, he agrees to follow tradition.
Hiddleston comes out wearing a sheer nightgown through which you can see the outline of his legs and thighs, giving the impression that he’s naked underneath (which might be true -I’m still not sure). He begins to court the crowd for their vote. To me this scene channeled a red carpet event. There is Coriolanus, the star, on display, begging for the people’s approbation, but patronizing them in a mocking and sarcastic way, with a constant (but phony) smile on his face. One by one, the citizens approach and fawn over him, engaging in brief conversation, offering praise, star struck and gushing. Each citizen carefully hands him an over-sized red ticket which he takes and places in a basket. Things go south, the basket overturns and hundreds of tickets are strewn on the stage floor, making a sort of a red carpet.
The performances across the board were outstanding, but I’m giving a special nod to Deborah Findlay, Mark Gattis and Helen Schlesinger ( who played one of the citizens).
Oh, and yes, Tom Hiddleston, whose Coriolanus was tightly wound, arrogant, mocking, sensual, but not without playfulness, where appropriate. And he grabs you as much when he’s reacting, as when he’s speaking. The next to final as he listens to his mother’s entreaties to save Rome brought out tissues and sighs throughout the theater.
Even if you know the play well, and even if you’ve read everything about “the shower scene,” and the combat scenes, even if you know (and who doesn’t?) that Coriolanus is on a sure path to his death because of his inability to change his nature, believe me, you’ll still be surprised.