c.e. taillefer

January 31, 2014

It Shall be So: A Review of National Theatre Live’s Presentation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus


Or “I saw Tom Hiddleston kiss a lady, a dude and a lady again”

I had sort of known, in theory, that there were certain operas and live shows that you could pay for a ticket to view in a theatre.  I am a huge theatre fan.  My graduating major in high school was drama (Drama’s still my major, heyo! *swings a golf club*) and I have a little Sears festival Stag Management award I’m very proud of.  Having limited experiences with deer, I’m unsure of my abilities to handle stags, but I was a pretty good stage manager.  My first trip to Stratford was magical.  (Literally. We saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

So when I found out that National Theatre Live was going to be airing Coriolanus at a nearby movie theatre, on account of a million voices crying out at once “Tom Hiddleston!”, I grabbed a couple of tickets.  The tickets, and pre-show info said this was a live streaming via satellite, but since it was 7PM EST, I don’t know if that was wholly accurate.  It would’ve been around midnight in the UK.  (If anyone can confirm, that’d be awesome!)

The screening opened with a brief history of the Donmar warehouse, where the play was being performed. THIS SHIT IS MY JAM, okay.  The Donmar is a sparse, industrial theatre in the round, and director Josie Rourke knew what she was about in staging the play in this space. (She’s also the owner of the Donmar, which probably didn’t hurt.)  In keeping with the industrial feel of the space, the props and costuming are sparse: a blend of Roman graffiti and modern chairs; denim jeans with padded leather armor. 

Aside: for one of my senior level drama courses, I had to design a theme and costume for a streetcar named Desire.  My end result was one in which Blanche’s costumes, as she grows more unsteady and abused, regressed through periods of fashion: sultry 60s diva, 20s flapper, 1890s Victoriana, and so on.  Stanley, conversely, sheds more and more clothing.  This gets a little awkward when you remember Ned Flanders playing Stanley.  Anyway, the point is this thematic stuff is my key interest when watching plays. Romeo and Juliet in period dress? Meh. Romeo and Juliet with hawaiian shirts and guns? Now we’re talking my language.

The story of Coriolanus is fairly familiar to anyone who is familiar with the fickle nature of Roman citizenry.  It cleaves fairly closely to Julius Caesar – man wins great glory for himself through battles, man rises through political sphere, man bungles it in advocating tyranny.  The difference is in their downfall, only. (And come on, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about, there’s going to be a downfall.)

With all that said, the casting was incredible.  I was in it for the stage setting and music but the cast is what brought the whole thing home.  Not a single person was out of note: not Tom Hiddleston, not Mark Gatiss, not my boy Mark Stanley, or Deborah Findlay.  Birgitte Hjort Sorenson, who played Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia, was criminally underused, but that’s a fault of the original material and not of the director or cast at all.  The fact that the small handful of people who made up the minor parts or the senators held their own, against the likes of Mark Gatiss and Deborah Findlay speaks volumes, to their acting ability.

The best thing that great Shakespearean actors understand is how to conduct the flow of prose so that you’re not straining to hear and understand. Like reading A Clockwork Orange, the first few minutes of any performance is an acclimatization period, but for the most part, you can follow the plot and people. Theatre is naturally a great deal more expressive than film or TV, which lends itself to being clearer and better understood. (For example, props to Rochenda Sandall in her mastery of sarcasm.) 

No doubt Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss have a great deal to do with the show selling out, and continuing to sell out, the first day tickets are available, but word of mouth on how good the performance is as a whole will have done the bulk of it since.  Even without actually being in a theatre with the performers, the energy and passion is so high that it still touched the people in the audience of the cinema thousands of miles away. That’s talent, folks. You can’t fake that.

Of course, now I want to run away to Stratford and work for the stage again, but I suppose it can’t be helped.