Review: Coriolanus

Theatre is in my blood. I love reading it, writing it, performing it, directing it. Whenever someone would ask me, “How would you like to die?” my answer was always, “Performing on stage in some septuagenarian production of an Agatha Christie play.” I used to live in London, England, and would haunt the West End every weekend, squeezing my behind into as many of their tiny, tiny seats as I could afford to during my time there. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say I saw over 100 plays, from dramas to musicals, Shakespeare to the modern masters, hole-in-the-wall productions to main events on Shaftsbury Avenue. Being so close to such culture is the one thing I miss the most (not to say that Montreal doesn’t have its share of culture).

When the National Theatre began to broadcast some of its plays in cinemas around the world, I discovered a new temple at which to worship. Theater should, after all, be for the people, and the fact that so many can now see the best actors, directors, writers, and stagecraft wizards of all time by taking the bus to their local and shilling a mere $20, well… Just another boon of the digital age. So far, I have seen both versions of the Danny Boyle production of Frankenstein starring our two contemporary TV Sherlock Holmeses (they alternated parts – the best was JLM as the monster and Benedict as Victor Frankenstein), Helen Mirren reprise the Queen in The Audience, Kenneth Branagh play Macbeth, the 50th Anniversary of the National Theatre celebration special, and, last night, Coriolanus starring Tom Hiddleston.

Tom Hiddleston, foreground, as Coriolanus, at the Donmar, London, December 2013.

A Donmar Warehouse production directed by Josie Rourke, Coriolanus is the story of an early Roman general who excels at being a war hero, but who self-destructs when his ambitions, arrogance, and snobbery lead him into politics. Raised by a domineering mother to be the ultimate one-percenter, he is a brave and loyal man with good intentions who can’t see past his own prejudices at a time when Rome isn’t the epicenter of the ancient world, but a county full of warring tribes.

This staging has allegedly done away with a lot of the pomp and circumstance of past productions, paring both the set and the text down to their bare essentials. This is the kind of minimalist theater that entrenches itself deep in the heart, rich with symbolism, centering on performance, leaving space for the audience’s imagination. With a bunch of black chairs, a few ladders, some paint, some graffiti, and a bucketful of fake blood, Ms. Rourke, her crew, and her actors conjure up a tragedy as if by Satanic ritual. As someone who had never seen the play before, I had no trouble at all understanding what was going on; this is what I love about modern British theatre. The actor’s speeches were lucid, not flowery, imbuing the poetic lines with meaning and power.

As Coriolanus, Tom Hiddleston owned the stage. He is young to play the role – it’s usually reserved for someone middle aged – but he’s so good that you can’t help but think that this is what Shakespeare must have meant the character to be all along. He gives the character so many shades – earnestness even in his naivety, principled-ness even at his most arrogant, paternal love even as takes a hard stance against his family – that the reasons he succumbs to his tragic flaw are, while inevitable, totally understandable. He handles the nuances of Shakespearean language as if it was his mother tongue, and gives his body entirely to the production: the fight scenes, the close-ups, the camaraderie, everything. Everyone else in the cast, right down to the ensemble players, is brilliant: Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, Hadley Fraser as Aufidius, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen as Virgilia. Triple-threat Sherlock producer and Whovian Mark Gatiss is especially suave and heartbreaking as Menenius, the perfect conniver until the tables are turned on him. The only sour note in the cast was struck by two actors who played Brutus and Sicinius, who were serviceable but who never really gelled as a pair (especially since they were supposed to be lover-schemers) or as a credible threat to Coriolanus.

There’s even a little homoerotic subtext made text for your viewing pleasure!

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Overall, a riveting production. There is an encore screening later in the month of February, and if you are lucky enough to live close to a cinema playing it, I wouldn’t miss it! All sorts of info about this and upcoming screenings can be found here: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ I would particularly recommend the encore presentation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, since I saw that live in London last spring and it is easily one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. Whatever they are doing at the National Theatre, they are definitely doing it right!

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