Can I just say right up front how much I love this new trend of prestigious British theaters broadcasting their productions live? In the past, if I heard Tom Hiddleston was doing fabulous things onstage in England I would have just had to sit over here, on the other side of the pond, and writhe in envy. (As I am indeed now doing because David Tennant did Richard II for the RSC, and they recorded it, but I haven’t yet seen any indication that they plan to share it on this side of the world again. *teeth gnash*)
As you might have guessed from that first paragraph, I am a big Shakespeare geek. Studying his plays was one of the big draws to me when I became an English major. Shakespeare’s words can stab to the very marrow of your soul, and a great performance of those words can send tremors through the whole of your body. Such was the case with this superb production of Coriolanus, which, ironically, is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. (So much so, that there was a movement at one point to try and disprove that Shakespeare had written this play.)
First of all, the presentation of the performance was really well handled by National Theatre Live. For the non-Shakespeare nerds they had a rundown on the play, its themes, its intents, its context and such presented by the cast and director before the show began. This was done, I’m sure, to ground the people who hadn’t read the play/aren’t big Shakespeare fans as a rule. But I also found it interesting being a Shakespeare nerd myself to see how the director and actors arrived at their particular take on the play.
At intermission, they also had a similar discussion with just the director (Josie Rourke), and one of the things she discussed was why she cast Tom Hiddleston in the role; Coriolanus is usually played by an actor at least a decade or two older. Rourke talked about the great athleticism the role requires, and the sheer presence also necessary to believe that this is the greatest warrior of Rome. She also wanted to explore, though, the vulnerability of the character, and the fact that she cast such a relatively young actor meant that she could play around with the idea that he is a man still trying to figure out his place in the world.
Another interesting aspect she mentioned was the fact that everyone, but everyone, is basically obsessed with Coriolanus in the world of the play. His mother, his doting wife, his general, half the senate, even the enemy general. Coriolanus inspires adoration without actually desiring it. I think the idea of a man everyone is inherently drawn to and desires made Tom Hiddleston, “sexiest man on the planet”, a brilliant choice to play the role.
Here’s a short video from the National Theatre website of Hiddleston talking about the role.
It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of his, and he inhabits the part of the fierce and hot-blooded warrior amazingly well. He’s also, I’ll just say it, extremely sexy in the tight hipster jeans and leather breastplate he spends most of the play wearing. But I really don’t think I would love him half so much if he wasn’t also just amazingly, breath-takingly, literally ridiculously talented.
Shakespeare’s language is hard to handle, many people can’t even understand it, and yet Hiddleston speaks all his lines with an ease, a fluidity, a viruoso performance of nuance so as to create wonderfully intricate levels of emotion and meaning. One of my favorite scenes was when he begs the plebians for their “voices”–their votes for him for consul–and it is amazing how Hiddleston injects such venom and frustration, mocking the plebians in one of the play’s more hilarious moments. He’s fantastic at that, taking a small beat or using a head-tilt or a change of voice and thereby giving the line a sudden humor you wouldn’t have noticed before. God, I would love to see him do Hamlet. (Although it is hard to imagine anyone out-doing David Tennant’s amazing performance in that role.)
Another standout scene for me is the moment where Coriolanus gives himself up to his greatest enemy Aufidius and makes an audacious offer: his enemy can either cut his throat or take Coriolanus as his general and lead an assault with him against Rome–their now-mutual enemy. In the scene, I felt like Hiddleston was playing it as if Coriolanus really was hoping for the cut throat and didn’t quite know what to do when his enemy kisses him on the lips (see above RE: everyone is obsessed with Coriolanus) and accepts his offer to destroy Rome together.
But really the whole of Hiddleston’s Coriolanus was amazing: visceral, intense, but still with that wonderful charm and vulnerability that marks all of his performances from partyboy turned stern king Henry V to the maniacal yet deeply wounded Loki. There’s a great moment in Coriolanus where Hiddleston’s face is literally covered in blood, so much so his skin is entirely red, and all you could really see were his pale blue eyes shining in this sea of gore. The visual hits you right in the gut: bare humanity in the midst of catastrophe. He has stage presence to spare and was a fantastic choice for this role. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I wanted to talk about some of the other standouts in the cast. I adore Mark Gatiss as Mycroft on BBC’s Sherlock, and he’s another masterfully well cast company member in the role of the senator Menenius, Coriolanus’ sort of foster-father.
Gatiss’ dry wit and gawky, long-limbed physicality is well put to use in the comic moments of the play, and he serves as a great foil to the coiled intensity of Hiddleston’s Coriolanus. Gatiss is equally affecting, though, in the heart-wrenching moments, such as the scene where Coriolanus utterly rejects him and sends him away without even speaking to him.
I also wanted to give a shoutout to Alfred Enoch as the soldier Titus Lartius. Enoch played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films and more recently was also on BBC’s Sherlock as the palace guard that Dr. Watson saves from dying. Enoch has now grown into a fine, strapping young man with excellent stage presence and a good command of Shakespeare’s language. He’s one to watch I think (and not just because he’s so cute. ;P).
The staging of the play was also fascinating. For instance, choosing to have the barbarians speak with a Scottish accent, (ETA: Dee in the comments pointed out that they were actually probably going for a Northern English accent actually) which I think the director did to show that the Romans and the Volscians are not actually that different culturally speaking. Despite what the Romans say, the Volscians are their mirror selves, a sister city, and not the brutal barbarians the Romans try and paint them as.
The director also described wanting to make the stage resemble an arena, which is a great choice because the whole play is basically about combat of one kind or another: Coriolanus and his army vs. the Volscians, Menenius vs. The People’s Tribunes, Coriolanus vs. The People, Coriolanus vs. his mother…
The designers also played a lot with the idea of graffiti, and in the pre-show documentary they discussed looking not only at how the ancient Romans used graffiti but also how it is being used in modern times in places of civil unrest as a way for people to express their discontent. But the staging goes deeper, and the graffiti they project on the walls becomes at times almost yet another form of assault on Coriolanus. The light pulses and the graffiti grows to fill the back wall of the theater in time with voices chanting angrily from the chorus until it becomes not just an assault on the senses but an almost physical blow as well.
I also found it interesting and really moving how the director chose to stage Coriolanus’ actual exit from Rome after he is banished, which meant that we watched Hiddleston walk alone across a bare stage while the mob hurls abuse and rotten food at him (and they do actually pelt him with tomatoes! That is commitment to a role.) I thought this was a fantastic choice because I remember when I read the play in college I thought Coriolanus’ turnaround from his grief at losing his friends and family to wanting to burn all of Rome, friends and family be damned, was a little abrupt. But this one small moment of abject humiliation from the people Coriolanus has spent his life defending really helped me feel his mortification on a deeper level and made his transition much easier to understand.
All in all, top to bottom, this was an incredibly well crafted show and a delight to watch. I’m going to keep my eye out for anymore Shakespeare productions shown by the National Theatre. Whether Hiddleston is in them or not. ;P
Follow this link to the National Theatre website if you wanted to try and find a showing near to you. They’re winding up the run soon, but they might show it again considering the theater I was in was basically filled to capacity. You can also see behind the scenes info and trailers for Coriolanus on their website.
Now, as a bonus, here’s another fun video showing Hiddleston and some of the actors doing their warm-ups before curtain time: