Before I get started on the particulars, I would like to put in a word of praise for NTLive. I had no idea this program(me) was available before I saw Coriolanus, and I am absolutely in love with it. I have already seen another show (War Horse – which was orders of magnitude better than the movie), and I plan to see whatever they deign to throw my way in the future. It is a fantastic way of spreading the joy and passion of GOOD theater around the world, and I am extremely grateful that it exists (and kicking myself for what I have already missed!) Well, done, National Theatre!
Now, the subject at hand.
CORIOLANUS: a review in Three Parts
Part 1: The Production
Writing about this particular production of Coriolanus will necessarily involve some criticism of the play, though I will try to avoid repeating myself. I would love to see it again; I am not sure if some of the problems I have are with the production or with the play itself. At the time, I had no idea I would be writing this blog, so I was not taking notes. My main problem is that the situation in Act III, when everything goes to hell for poor Coriolanus, seemed to go from 0 – 90 in ten seconds. There seemed to be nothing between yeah, he’s kind of a jerk, but we will have him as Consul, and OMG! Spawn of the Devil! Kill him! I suspect the fault lies in the play — I do not think director Josie Rourke has made cuts here — but the fierce intensity of the production at the Donmar made the fall from grace seem sudden and startling. I am pretty sure the ending was cut; Coriolanus had no time to make the promised peace with Rome before he was — literally — strung up by his heels and slaughtered. It did change the feeling of the ending a bit, but it was entirely consistent with Rourke’s interpretation of the Coriolanus/Aufidius relationship. I REALLY wish I could see it again with a remote control and text in hand.
That said, overall, it was a brilliant production. The casting was spot on, and everyone was fantastic. Tom Hiddleston was fiery and impassioned in a physically demanding role. Deborah Findley was appropriately overbearing and ambitious for her son. I did not know what role Mark Gatiss had been cast in when I first began reading the play, but as soon as I got to Menenius’s part, it was obvious; he was perfectly cast and ably handled the humor and the gravity needed for the role. Brutus and Sicinia (recast as a female) were manipulative and repellent, Virgilia, loving but over-matched against her dominating mother-in-law; Aufidius, intense and savage. I really could not find a false note among the casting; everyone was wonderful.
The staging was minimalist and ingenious. Paint, applied on the floor at the beginning of the play, neatly delineated center stage. Another square painted later implied confinement, a place for Coriolanus to be penned as he was excoriated by the mob. Graffiti on the back wall indicated the unrest among the plebs. The only pieces of set were the ladder affixed to the back wall of the stage, some chairs, and a podium. The Donmar stage is not large; anything more would have been too cluttered. The chairs became walls, trenches, and pedestals as needed. It was a clever plan, and it worked exceedingly well.
This picture is from a Tumblr called Lego Loki . You should go there and look around. He has done the entire play in Lego (you will have to scroll down some to find it). It is utterly adorable.
Part 2: The Mechanics
A disclaimer: I am related to a person who works behind the scenes in theater, so I pay attention to things that some people might not take much note of. The main thing I noticed the most about this production is what a damn MESS they made. Beginning with the painting on the floor and walls, continuing through the dirt, and the shower, and the ballots, and the tomatoes, and the blood. I have never seen a show where they had to squeegee the stage during the performance (though it was cleverly incorporated into the scene) and break out the shop vacs and mops during the interval. This play couldn’t have been staged anywhere but a place like the Donmar, with its concrete stage and drains in the floor. The production designers took full advantage of the facility, but the backstage part of me cringed with every new mess. I’m sure some of the stage crew really hated this production.
I did like the costuming for the most part. The style was modern, but with some Romanesque touches like half armor breastplates and stylized draping on a few costumes hinting at togas. I felt a bit sorry for Mark Gatiss, in his many layers of Menenius. By my count there were at least four — shirt, waistcoat, sweater, long vest over the sweater — plus a scarf on top of that. Poor man must have been dying up there.
There was quite a bit of fan service in Hiddleston’s costuming. The aforementioned tight pants and translucent tunic were a bit…distracting (not that I am complaining!), but really did not detract from the performance. I’m not entirely sure the on-stage shower was necessary. Yes, we got to see the wounds, and it served to wash some of the blood out of Tom’s hair (which provided the further distraction of watching it curl up as it dried), but it seemed a bit — unnecessary? It was by no means a titillating scene — the agony on his face eliminated that possibility. I’m just not sure it belonged there. Kudos to his dressers and make-up people; they must have been very, very busy.
Part 3: Jane and the Hiddlestoners
I’m not sure WHY I expected anything else, but when I first entered the theater, I was startled to find it filled with giggling Hiddlestoners, running around and showing each other pictures, Tumblrs, and fan sites on their phones. For some reason, I was expecting the middle-to-senior-aged women (with a few retired husbands dragged along) that I usually see when I go to movie matinees (I work at home, so I usually hit the weekday matinees). Instead, I got a lively crowd of young women reveling in a chance to see the object of their affection. After I got over my initial dismay, I found them absolutely delightful and inspiring in their uninhibited nerdery. To some it might seem sad or anti-feminist that the nerdery they are owning is their singular devotion to an attractive (and talented) man that they will never meet. The thing I admire about them, though, is their ability to say THIS is who I am, and THIS is what I like; I have never been able to do that, and I found it refreshing to be in a crowd of people who just didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought.
Anyway, I was a bit apprehensive about the actual show after that introduction to the crowd. I was afraid they would giggle or talk throughout, but my fears were unfounded. Once the lights went down, they behaved themselves. There was an occasional giggle, as previously mentioned, and some amusing comments during the interval (Mostly about that tunic. I really couldn’t blame them.) But then a funny thing happened during the second half. The women who had come for the man began to be affected by the play. By the end, those who had been making salacious comments about the costumes were either weeping uncontrollably or just sitting in stunned silence. The raw, visceral intensity of the performances, the stark brutality of the ending had just overwhelmed them. THAT is the power of live theater, and THAT is why it is important. I do not know if any of those women (or the man; there was one man) will ever come see another play, but I hope some of them will. I like to think that they have learned the power of good live theatrer and that they will be more willing to come out again and take a chance, no matter who is in the play
And that was the whole point of the broadcast, wasn’t it?
Tri-Coriolanus Smackdown: Hiddleston Vs Feinnes Vs Howard. There WILL be Blood.
And then, I PROMISE, I will move on to something else. Really.