Last month I saw National Theatre Live’s broadcast of Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss. Firstly, it was an amazing play and brilliant production; I am all the more glad for having seen it. Broadcast live from London, it was a different experience to watch a play in a movie theatre and one that is unique: using six different cameras to film the play, there were close-ups of the actors in various scenes and other angles that would be impossible to witness in a regular theatre attendance, in which one’s vantage point would be determined where one sat, etc., as well as two interval features: one before the start of the play, explaining the play and its context, and the second an interview with the play’s director, Josie Rourke. Both of these featurettes I enjoyed.1
I became interested in seeing Coriolanus as I learned more about it and was eventually convinced to see it after watching a video of Mark Gatiss talking about the play (video below). In preparation, I borrowed two2 copies of the play from the library: the Arden Shakespeare edition and the Folger Shakespeare Library. (While the text can be easily found online, I like to read the footnotes and learn the context of archaic or obscure meanings to different words, etc.) Of the two, Arden is more scholarly and I confess that I barely made a dent in reading either edition before going to see it and in a way, I am kind of happy to have gone to see the play with a blank slate; for once I didn’t know what to expect or anticipate in a Shakespeare play!
(Note: a higher quality version on The Telegraph is available here.)
One of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, it is also his most politically driven and even has the apparent distinction of being banned in modern democracies (although there are little facts to support this, when I researched this). Some critics have read and analyzed the play as being “biography dramatized”, reflecting the political turmoil of Jacobean England during the Midlands Revolt in 1607 when prices of wheat and corn soared. It is doubtless, however, that Coriolanus is a topical drama for now and thus, is timeless as political commentary.
Caius Martius, the protagonist and renamed Coriolanus after a siege on the city of Corioles, is stubbornly contemptuous, prideful, and is a character that one could easily fast dislike but for the marked vulnerability that he’s imbued with by Tom Hiddleston’s stellar performance, instead creating a character whom one is able to understand where he’s coming from, even if not fully able to sympathize with or relate to as a character. This does not mean he is an unsympathetic character, or completely irredeemable, yet his flaws overshadow his virtues; in the words of Menenius, “His heart is his mouth; what his breast forges, that his tongue must vent.” Caius Martius is a soldier, but he is not a politician. He does not possess, or has cultivated, the way of language and wit like Menenius, delightful to watch and who is brilliantly played by Mark Gatiss. (Menenius’s mannerisms sometimes reminded me, more than once, of Mycroft from the BBC Sherlock.)
Josie Rourke’s production takes the brilliant turn of interpreting Coriolanus from a neutral standpoint so that the audience is able to see Coriolanus and the mob for what they are, all the while turning expectations on their head. Early on I assumed that I would take the side of the people but, conversely, by giving insight, in little ways, into Coriolanus I was driven to near exasperation by the plebeians, and especially the tribunes who stirred the pot that leads to Coriolanus’s banishment from Rome and the events thereafter. The one moment that is truly private, to which the audience is witness, and that compels our understanding of him and prepares us for the opposition of the tribunes, is a shower scene in which he washes away the blood after battle and we see his gruesome wounds for the first and only time. (The makeup is so well-done that I was taken aback and cringed upon seeing them.)
Part of what makes this production work so well is the stark minimalism of the set. The Donmar Warehouse seats only two hundred and fifty people and the stage is small. Instead of elaborate props, the only props used are the wall and chairs, which are put to versatile, creative use. At the beginning of the play, all the actors appear on stage and retreat into the back, where they sat on the chairs in the dark, against the wall, until it’s a particular character’s scene and retreat likewise; as the play progresses, the chairs are moved around the stage, whether to form a senate or a battle scene. The wall is also used as a prop, with ever-changing graffiti (using a light projector) symbolizing the people’s voices. Change of scene and acts are indicated by stage light and a kind of fast-paced techno music. All of these elements together create an atmosphere and setting with little to distract from the action and focus of the play.
If I were to pick a single highlight, it would have to be the time during the intermission and after the show, in which the show’s quality shines through the audience’s response and any discussion inspired or provoked by it, during which the themes of the play are allowed to be expanded upon in people’s conversations. On the way home from the play, we talked of nothing but the play: our favourite lines, stage direction, the actors, and the themes explored such as politics, military and its effects of civilian life, and the human condition (a recurring subject with Shakespeare), as well as possible modern interpretations based on contemporary social context of archaic meanings of certain words or old-fashioned constructs of society.
Coriolanus is thought-provoking and driven, and it’s a performance that I’m truly grateful for having had the opportunity to see. I would it recommend to everyone who is enthusiastic about Shakespeare or are admirers of the actors involved. While the play’s run is now over, National Theatre Live is screening encores to cinemas worldwide. To see if a movie theatre in your area will be screening it, check National Theatre Live’s website.
1 There has been complaints that it isn’t part of the theatre experience and I’ll concede that it isn’t but as an extra as part of going to watch a play in a movie theatre or cinema, I have no issue. Besides, by watching a play in a movie theatre one is already not taking part in a traditional theatre experience for reasons already mentioned.
2 Yes, two. It turns out that I borrowed the 1976 Arden edition, when I think I meant to borrow the 2013 edition – this, I realized, belatedly. However, after watching the play, the introduction was useful, particularly about the relationship of Coriolanus and Audifius.
Notes and Further Reading
The Arden Shakespeare, Coriolanus (1976, see second footnote above)
Folger Shakespeare Library, Coriolanus (2009)
“Livy, Machiavelli and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus”, Anne Barton; “Plutarch, insurrection and dearth in Coriolanus”, David George; Shakespeare and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
The Noise That Banish’d Martius: Coriolanus in Post-War Germany
Donmar Warehouse Behind the Scenes: Coriolanus (bibliography included for further reading, as well)
Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, the legendary Roman general upon whom Shakespeare based his play (Wikipedia entry)
Telegraph: Tom Hiddleston meets Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (includes video)