by William Shakespeare
Directed by Josie Rourke
NT Live broadcast to cinemas from the Donmar Warehouse
30 January 2014
Tom Hiddleston as Caius Martius, later named Coriolanus
Mark Gattis as Menenius, Roman Senator
Hadley Fraser as Aufidius, leader of the Volscians
Peter de Jersey as Cominius, senior Roman general
Deborah Findley as Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus
Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Virgila, wife of Coriolanus
Elliot Levy as Tribune Brutus
Helen Schlesginger as Tribune Sicinia (Sicinius)
Coriolanus and Virgila
The Donmar Warehouse is tiny. 251 seats. You wouldn’t get a ticket for this, it sold out the first day. We tried. I’d say most likely in the first couple of hours. So it makes sense to broadcast it in the NT live experience.
It’s quite a jump from the all-action 2011 film with Ralph Fiennes, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain, though combining the TV stars of Sherlock (Mark Gattis is Mycroft Holmes), Borgen (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) with Tom Hiddleston, the film star of The War Horse, Deep Blue Sea, Avengers and Thor is not a step down in star acting. It is a U-turn on size and space, and we enjoyed it much more than the film. It is a later play (1605 to 1608 somewhere), so was probably first tried in the confined Blackfriars indoor theatre rather than The Globe, thus suiting the scale of the Donmar.
Coriolanus is a play I would have described as lesser-known a few years ago, and Josie Rourke does in the interval interview. It was one of my early Shakespeare experiences, outdoor, on a windy clifftop in Cornwall when I was seventeen, and I remember that I found it extremely hard to follow, though the howling wind and loudly clanking armour didn’t help. It also doesn’t help unless you realize that Martius, or Caius Martius is the central figure, only re-named Coriolanus during the play after he defeats Rome’s enemies and captures the city of Corioles. The film sorted out the story, but I class the Roman plays along with the histories as having too many battles and too much politics. They handled that well in this slimmed-down production. The story and text were performed with absolute clarity. After the outdoor battles in the film, this was virtually fight free. No thesping around in balaclavas with Kalashnikovs either for a change. The siege and taking of Corioles was shown by a cast of five , Martius and four soldiers, with chairs and ladders symbolically showing fighting. Fireballs descended from the roof round the ladder. Then Martius descended covered in blood. That’s right for me.
Shower after the battle
The Aufidius / Martius fight was first rate, moving from swords to wrestling with proper over the shoulder throws. While we’re on the violent bits, the scene where Martius aka Coriolanus showers off the gore, wincing in agony as the water hits his impressive scars is memorable.
The costume works. It’s indefinable, a mixture of The Gap, scarves, vintage shop, crusty odds, Doc Martens, jeans, chinos and Roman touches of breastplates, Roman belts, neckpieces, sword belts and cloaks. Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, gets a dusty loose frock of an unusual shape, while the wife Virgilia gets a tightish 50s dress. It’s Modern day with added ancient world.
General Cominius, Volumnia
The tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius have become a male / female pair with a name switch to Sicinia for her. They’re the morally outraged citizen-representatives as conniving plotters, often shown seated, heads close together. The play has a major theme, which this double act bring out (and brilliantly too). Coriolanus is the heroic war leader as necessary evil. A modern version of the theme was Norman Mailer’s The Naked & The Dead where the only way to defeat an implacable and brutal enemy is to appoint a general who is even more of a bastard than the other side’s general. The other parallel is Winston Churchill, applauded as a war leader, and immediately voted out of office by the public in 1945 on victory. Coriolanus is a genuine hero, from the patrician class (Hiddlestone’s Old Etonian background gives him insight) with contempt for the people. They know it. But the tribunes are played as self-righteous political spin doctors … you know their names … orchestrating the public rejection of the right-wing hero, on the pretext of democracy. It’s a bit like the police and Plebgate really. The graffiti on the back wall reads ‘Year of the Pleb’ and Conservative minister Andrew Mitchell was sacked for allegedly calling policemen “plebs.” They had declined to open the gates blocking off Downing Street for him to ride through on his bike. The newspapers had a field day, he admitted swearing, but denied saying “plebs.” He lost his job. Even his best friends said he had a somewhat snooty and patrician demeanor, but it turns out the police had made it up, and senior officers were prepared to take the ball and run with it too. They “fitted him up.”
Sicinia and Brutus
The large red paper ballot papers added clarity to all the political infighting as they could be passed around, appealed for, torn up, thrown about. The tribunes work the crowd. Coriolanus gets banished, leaves Rome, and joins their bitter enemy (and his) Aufidius to take revenge on Rome.
The camera close ups on the seated tribunes added subtlety that would be missed even in the proximity of the Donmar Warehouse. The camera throughout was well prepared … there were many switches to interesting background reactions and exchanged glances during speeches, and near the end the camera switched to Tom Hiddlestone to watch tears emerge and role down his cheek … not many actors can do that at will. There was no possibility of the hand wipe and application of glycerine either. We saw the tears build, come out and trickle in tight close up. Again, even in the front row in the actual live theatre I think it unlikely we would have seen that, as we would have been watching Volumnia’s speech while it happened. Deborah Findley is the martial old dame, as powerful a mother as you could find. Our Danish Borgen star had an impeccable English accent, as well as her sudden fury with the tribunes being one of the ‘sit right back in your seat and gasp’ moments of the evening.
Mark Gattis was Menenius, the “humorous patrician” and played with aplomb. He is naturally funny and you can’t take your eyes off him. It’s a cliché nowadays in the history plays, but the other side, the enemies of Rome, Aufidius and the Volscians, are all given northern English accents. The bit where they mocked Menenius’s pronunciation of his own name took me back to catching buses in East Yorkshire in the 60s. Conductors, like shop assistants, thought it quite acceptable to take the piss out of my southern accent to my face. Obviously, down in Bournemouth on the South Coast, we took the piss out of northern accents, but we always had the good grace to do it behind their backs. Typical southern insincerity, I guess northerners will say. At least this was a rare play where the accent division was consistent, so made sense.
Aufidius has his hatred for Coriolanus mingled with a powerful “strange attraction” as they used to say, making it easier for them to decide to ally against Rome. The reaction shots of Hiddlestone’s face from a camera right over Aufidius’s shoulder as they finally hug are revealing. Great stuff, which at the most 30% of the theatre (with its seats on three sides) would have seen.
Coriolanus in the Volscian town, after banishment from Rome
You always get a preview bit with NT Live, then you’re told the interval is 15 minutes, but once seated you get a five minute interview on stage with the director, here Josie Rourke. This is a good idea because it gets everyone seated before the second half. I enjoyed listening to Josie Rourke, but it got a bit twittery when Emma Freud started talking about how sexy Tom Hiddlestone is. A lot of people laughed so it went down well, and was light relief, but somewhat schoolgirlish, and I was enjoying the more serious points Ms Rourke had been making. The serious point is parallels with today. She wisely drew no specific parallels. In the play, women avert a mass slaughter that would have taken place had Coriolanus not been dissuaded and gone for a peace treaty. If only that were actually happening in Syria. The ending is spectacular.
The HD broadcast was seamless, though the Donmar is harder to light for cameras than the National or RSC. We were too far forward on earlier NT Lives and there was pixellation. So don’t sit at the front. By Row F it was smooth. I don’t know if these digital broadcasts have fixed settings. I doubt it. If not, Poole Lighthouse definitely had the sound a notch or two too low. It was audible, but lost impact. There is a noticeable echo from the space in parts.