Coriolanus Review

When I saw Star Trek II The Wrath of Kahn last summer, I listened to the audio commentary. In it, the director pointed out that successful people are often punished for their success with promotions. He pointed to the story of the woman who edited Jaws. She was promoted, and never edited another film again.

It may seem like a strange place to start a review on one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, Coriolanus, which takes place not in the 23rd century, but ancient pre-impirial Rome. Coriolanus tells the story of a general, called Coriolanus because of a city he conquers at the beginning of the play. As a reward for his triumph, he is elected a consul in the Senate. However, Coriolanus cannot stomach his duties in the Senate, because he has nothing but contempt for the plebeians, the ordinary Roman citizen. Being a tragedy, he eventually dies. (Don’t give me any of that spoiler bullshit. The play is called a tragedy. When you see tragedy in the title of a Shakespeare play, think death!)

This is the first time in a long time that I have seen a Shakespeare play where I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. Ok, I knew that Coriolanus was supposed to be some kind of protofacist, and that he would die. (It is a tragedy.) Still, I didn’t know how he got from point A to point B. I was also worried because I had (have) a cold, so I was not sure I’d be able to focus on the the play.

It’s true, I did not catch the meaning of every single word, but I certainly had no trouble understanding the action. There will be plenty of time to parse the meaning of each word when I read Coriolanus later.

This production was part of the National Theater Live program in Britain. They videotape live performances of significant productions in Britain, and broadcast them live. They are then sent to the United States, where they are broadcast in movie theaters across the country, and possibly in other parts of the world. A few years ago, I saw King Lear starring Derek Jacobi in this fashion. It was deeply moving, and I was thrilled to experience that.

Anyway, on to the production at hand. This production was famous mainly because it starred Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus.

Tom Hiddleston

For those not in the know, Tom Hiddleston played Loki in Thor and The Avengers. Loki has become a very popular villain and nerd icon, or rather, an icon for the outsider, the outcast. He has come to be seen not as a villain, but as an anti-hero. Here is Loki appearing in front of San Diego Comic Con last year, basically his home base. These are Loki’s people, the legions in his army. He is their Julius Caesar, returning to Rome from Gaul with fresh slaves. (Or a movie trailer. Same diff.)

For more information about Loki, see Tumblr.

Tom Hiddleston, the actor has also attracted an army himself. And yes, it is an army. For more information about Tom Hiddleston, see Tumblr. Or watch this link. (Warning! Watching this link may result in a condition called being Hiddlestoned. Do not watch unless you are willing to face the potential life ruining consequences.)

Donmar wisely chose to capitalize on Tom Hiddleston’s army by casting him as the lead in Coriolanus. It is a brilliant coup. Untold numbers of women bought tickets to this play. However, this play is primarily about war and politics. This means when they dragged their husbands and boyfriends to see it, the men could say to themselves, “Hey, this is violent and bloody, so it’s OK for me to like this!” I could sense some of that dynamic in the movie theater where I saw this production.

Because of Tom Hiddleston’s status, much has been made in professional reviews of the “shower scene.” After the battle, Coriolanus strips off his shirt and washes off the blood. It reminds me of a similar scene in Julie Taymor’s Titus, another Shakespeare play about Rome, war, and politics. (Though nowhere near as good.) In Titus, the men sit statue-like, truly reminiscent of Rodin’s work. They shower, wash off the mud, and appear as living men. There is a similar dynamic going on in this scene onstage.

Most of the reviews of this play seem to view this as a kind of fan service, showing Tom Hiddleston shirtless. But that is not at all how I felt in this moment; I cringed as I watched this action. I winced as the blood dripped off. I thought about the times I have had surgery in my life, and how fortunate I was that the people in the operating rooms were there to clean up the blood. The shower scene may have had the primary intention of showing Tom’s body as an erotic object, but for my money, that was not the primary effect. (Oh, the scene where he shows up covered in blood was a little scary. It reminded me of Banquo’s ghost.)

Shortly before the shower scene we see the aftermath of the battle. Coriolanus sits, totally exhausted, and tries unsuccessfully to remember the name of a local man who helped him. I was surprised at the quiet pathos in this scene. There are many great speeches in this play, and for the most part, when people think of Shakespeare, they think of larger than life speeches. However, there are also a number of quiet moments in Shakespeare, and a good production and performance will balance those elements. Tom Hiddleston does this effortlessly, but what really struck me were the quieter moments, and the moments of stillness.

It was also striking to see him actively listen. He acquitted himself very well with the language, but that is no surprise. (Cambridge will do that.) However, I enjoyed watching him listen to other actors. This is something most people do not appreciate, in my opinion. When we focus on an actor’s performance, we look at the moments when they’re speaking, usually passionately and with a lot of emotion. There’s a sense that an actor who is not talking in a scene is simply biding time until he can speak. A good actor knows better.

The rest of the cast also matched him. I was very much impressed with two performances in particular. I loved Mark Gatiss’ performance. It was witty and also moving. I loved how he used the language at the beginning of the play to create the image of the Senate as the stomach passing on the grain to the rest of the city. He comes across as the consummate politician. He is a good foil for Coriolanus. He is not athletic or a great warrior (presumably), but he knows how to speak well, and he understands how to work the mob. I was also struck by his despair in his last scene, when he is unable to persuade Coriolanus to back down in his quest for revenge. He has a wonderful line, “There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.” (It is such a powerful image. Think about it. Shakespeare could have chosen another animal, such as a rabbit. But substitute the word rabbit in this line and try it. Not the same, huh?)

Deborah Findlay Volumnia Photo by Johan Persson

I also loved the performance of Deborah Findlay as Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia. She is clearly enamored with her son, and in many ways living through him. Her hubris in the face of her son’s political ineptitude is very thought provoking. I also loved her speech at the end of the play, when she beseeches her son for mercy. I truly felt for her terrible plight, even though it was largely her making. She overpowers her son many times through sheer force of will, and is blind to his personal weakness. Yet, in the end, she expresses her sorrow so compellingly, I found myself willing to forgive her. Also, why have I never heard of Volumnia before? She is a great part.

Coriolanus Stage
The set is, exactly as the theater describes itself, a warehouse. I love this kind of staging for Shakespeare. The wall is also used for the graffiti images from the plebeians, demanding bread from the patricians. It calls to mind many of the protest walls that have arisen (and been destroyed) all over the world as people clamor for freedom and social justice. The set, lighting, projections, and the costumes all work exactly as they should. They support the action of the play, never competing with it for attention.

All in all, this production served as an excellent introduction to one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works. Before seeing this production, I had no desire at all to read Coriolanus or to watch a production of it. I was not opposed to it, but it simply was not on my list. This production changed my mind. T. S. Eliot once said, according to Wikipedia, that Coriolanus is a better play than Hamlet. I’ll respectfully disagree with that, but I do think that Coriolanus is a compelling and moving story. It deserves to be more widely read and performed.

Lastly, but certainly not least, thank you National Theater Live for making it possible for so many people to share in these experiences.

I do not own the images or videos. The images of Coriolanus are courtesy of the Donmar Warehouse website.

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