Thursday, 17 July 2014

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

What: Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense dir. Sean Foley (Duke of York’s Theatre, London; 10th Oct 2013 – 20th Sept 2014)

When: Wednesday 16th July 2014

Where: Duke of York’s Theatre, London

Why: A free ticket – many thanks to Official Theatre!

How: A little warm around the edges from the inklings of a heatwave and a craftily imbibed pre-show Sol

Never in my life have I been able to turn down something free. So when Official Theatre got in touch with a comp, I snatched it up like P.G. Wodehouse snatching up a comically toffy name.

Perfect Nonsense is an apt name for the play, if we’re taking ‘perfect’ to mean, archaically, ‘completely formed, finished, or made; completely prepared and made ready’.[1] Trussed up and finished off like Bertie Wooster in a buttoned waistcoat, this bouncy, amiable pseudo-romp is well directed, well rehearsed, and well, a little too ‘prepared’. Like Bertie, it’s a bit forced.

The premise is that Bertie Wooster, affable chap and all-round nice fellow, wants to put on a performance of an eventful day in which his Aunt Dahlia forcibly enlisted his help in the retrieval of a silver cow creamer, fearfully fallen into the possession of the inimitable Sir Watykn Basset. The play abounds with meta-theatrical and playful nods to its own artificiality, the limitations of doubling providing a lot of the laughs, Bertie’s goofy satisfaction at his own narrative charming. Self-consciously a dramatic farce, it is undeniably fun. It is not, however, as the OED might argue, perfect in the sense of being ‘in a state of complete excellence; free from any imperfection or defect of quality’.[2] It lacks a certain pizzazz, a certain West End kapow. Perhaps this was due to the mid-week slump, where several seats remained unfilled, punters soaking up cider in pubs and parks.

Or perhaps this is down to its small cast. A three-hander of middle-age and upward males –accomplished in their mimicking abilities, admirable for their stamina, generally comfortable in their roles – is not always going to be a recipe for fireworks (and quite right too – we can’t have another roof falling down now, can we?). Their onstage chemistry, camaraderie and mutual respect is clear, and the venue is a suitably intimate one, but, regardless, the space never felt fully utilised, fully filled. I fear when the play goes on tour at the end of September it may struggle in some of the larger venues on its route.

And that's showbiz, kid.
(Photo from

The play begins with Bertie addressing his audience, explaining how he will be treading the boards with the help of his faithful valet Jeeves and his Aunt Dahlia’s well-worn butler Seppings filling all other parts. Played too much on one level, this opening interaction didn’t grab me, up in the Royal Circle – it was a little too wide-eyed and caricatured to draw that much interest; perhaps closer to the stage it would have been magical, and perhaps for a tourist it would have been charmingly British. But this opening interaction left me a little suspicious of whether the next two and a half hours were going to drive me a little mad.

As it turns out, they didn’t at all. I need to remember (perhaps write on a Post-it and stick to my notebook) that I never, ever enjoy the first ten to fifteen minutes of a show, even one I end up raving about later. I need my settling time. I’m probably thinking about how hungry I am (probably fairly), how full I am (quite likely also fairly), how close I am to needing a toilet break (generally about half a cup of tea away), to properly relax into enjoying something. A little restless, and a bit of a fidget, those teething moments are always hard. As my mind wandered in this direction, I resolved to settle back and enjoy from that moment onwards.

And the truth is, James Lance’s Bertie Wooster really is hugely likeable. Completely two-dimensional, but justifiably so, as this is a completely two-dimensional piece, entertainment at its purest, not purporting to be anything else. His exaggerated facial expressions are a masterclass in Panto 101, and his genuine glee at almost everything is infectious. He’s a puppy you really want to have around for Christmas, but maybe by Boxing Day he’ll find himself at Battersea with a bow around his neck. He does, rather oddly but wonderfully, an excellent impression of a newt, akin to a lizard impersonation an ex-boyfriend would occasionally pull out (this is, sadly, not a euphemism). I spent most of the play thinking he had played spotty Scottish teen Gregory in the 80s classic Gregory’s Girl, and could just not see the resemblance. This is because, it turns out, I had misread Wikipedia, and it was in fact his co-star, John Gordon Sinclair, who had debuted as the eponymous Hibernian adolescent (the name should have given it away really. Yeesh, why didn’t his parents just name him Scotty McHaggis-DeepFriedMarsBar)[3].

Sinclair’s Jeeves was a little disappointing. He has the potential to be a real foil to the flighty Bertie, but he seemed a little wearied, opaque without being interestingly opaque. As the play hinges on his mysteriously-gained information on Bertie’s nemesis, Jeeves’ pivotal role was a little wooden. Sinclair didn’t seem entirely comfortable with his top billing, and seemed to become more flustered as Jeeves as the play went on. I wonder if this is because he has clearly put a lot himself into his other characters: the spot-on pipe-smoking, insult-barking Sir Watkyn, his flouncy and highly-sexed daughter, Madeleine Basset (whose snake-like tongue set me quite a-fluster), her bumbling, pig-faced fiancé, newt-obsessed, Gussy Fink-Nottle, and the manipulative and seductive Stiffy Byng. His absolute star turn, however, is in one of the play’s concluding scenes, where he simultaneously takes the parts of Sir Watkyn and his niece Stiffy. A consummate feat of costume design (his left side dolled up in Stiffy’s garish pinky purple shiny skirt suit, his right side clad in Sir Watkyn’s perfect green army-major-on-golfing-holiday suit), his quick changes, comic timing and great sense of stage irony well deserved the round of applause that followed him off.

The star of the show, however, was co-creator Robert Goodale. An adorable aging cart horse of a Seppings, my heart leapt out for this overburdened and humble old man. Goodale’s lightly Scottish butler Butterfields had a deliciously wrinkly nose and, despite the many, many times the joke was used, his increasing perplexity and mild aggressiveness in his ‘Thank You’ battle with Bertie had me in stitches every time. His Inspector Oats, a Cockney policeman who Bertie describes as a bit ‘ooh ar ooh ar’,[4] is an amusing interlude of disgruntled fattery. His Hitler-haired fascist Roderick Spode was actually a little intimidating, a Rottweiler in a Doberman suit – as Bertie’s description lists Spode as six, eight, maybe nine feet tall, the diminutive Goodale steps up onto footstalls and staging until eventually investing in a ginormous suit on wheels. The disparity between his gnashy little nasty face, his repeated threats to smoosh Bertie into ‘jellaaaaaaay, Wooster, jellaaaaaaay’, and his limp lolloping limbs is a great piece of physical comedy. His pièce de resistance, however, is as the wonderfully orange-clad Aunt Dahlia, perhaps the wrtiers’ homage to the ‘coven of aunts’ with whom Wodehouse himself spent an unhappily large part of his childhood. As flamboyant as her flowery namesake, a few petals away from being a full on Dame Edna, Aunt Dahlia is, to the play and Goodale’s credit, no pantomime dame, no token drag act, but a hilariously crafted and fully fleshed battle-axe who lights up the room. Goodale’s own double scene, in which Aunt Dahlia fights Roderick Spode, is a superbly executed tussle, the best use of stage space in the production, and a testament to the variety of vocal talents that Jeeves recommendeds Seppings for at the beginning of the play.

The set is clever: a revolving stage and multi-purpose scenery meant that the play was as smooth as one of Bertie’s martinis. Set pieces are fantastically executed: the slow-mo falling of the prized silver cow creamer; Bertie’s bubbly bath-time, complete with rubber duck; Sepping’s level crossing. A nice touch is the use of sandbags and the electricity-producing bike (powering the revolving stage) that add an old-school theatre feel to the staging. Even the curtain, a bold red with gold fringe, was, apparently, a design element. I know this, because a man in front of us refused to put his phone away before curtain up, determined to have a photo of the stage to Whatsapp to some poor friend or lover. As a steward, and then his manager, told the fine fellow that he was infringing the show’s copyright by replicating the curtain, he repeatedly said ‘But the stage is EMPTY’ in an increasingly irritating and aggressive tone until he was told if he carried on being difficult he’d be asked to leave. A little advice, mate: save your breath, and the embarrassment of your elderly companions, and just Google it. Look, here it is:

The offending drape

The show ends with a hilarious and toe-tapping take on the Charleston, an unexpected jig of a treat which left me beaming. Perfect Nonsense really does exactly what it says on the tin. It is, as the OED would say, a piece ‘of which every part is enjoyable’.[5] Not only that, but it leaves you realizing your innate human desire to possess a cow creamer, so you too can enjoy milk streaming from the open mouth of a precious metal bovine.

[1] Perfect, adj 3a. Because why not start your blog post with a few sprinklings of the OED, eh?
[2] Perfect, adj 1b, ibid. There I go again!
[3] Sorry, Scotland – please feel free to leave the UK.
[4] I was the only person I heard laugh at this in the audience. #selfidentification

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Crucible

What: The Crucible dir. Yaël Farber (Old Vic, London; 21st June – 13th Sept)

When: Saturday 21st June (first night of previews – keen)

Where: Old Vic, London

Why: A walk down repressed-teenage-sexuality lane; PWC’s £12 under-25 offer

How: Eating smuggled churros from the nearby Wahaca and being told to take my feet off the ‘furniture’

In the heady days of 2006-2009, accurate historical documentary Robin Hood aired on the BBC. Featuring key talent such as Lily Allen’s dad, and that guy who would go on to play a drug-dealing kidnapper in Happy Valley, the show’s popularity grew amongst my fellow medieval enthusiasts, in part thanks to the psychologically compelling portrayal of arch-villain and wooer of Maid Marion, Sir Guy of Gisborne. This naturalistic and considered interpretation won the hearts of many for its subtle poignancy and understated delivery. LOL JK HE LOOKED WELL FIT WITH HIS SHIRT OFF!

Guyliner ahoy

As you can see, my quest to eradicate objectification from all aspects of my life has taken a bit of a nosedive; I blame the heat, the athletic specimens of Brazil 2014, and my monthly cycle. My theatre companion for the evening and I came across an advert last week for Richard Armitage’s star turn in The Crucible, and immediately went home and booked tickets for opening night. Judge us not, for sublimation of teenage lust[1] will help us move forward as adults into a world free of frustrated fantasies of dungeons, leather and riding whips. (ALL IN A PURELY HISTORICAL CONTEXT.)

Another confession: I’ve never encountered The Crucible. Despite being a mainstay of many English and Drama GCSEs for many a year (until that beastly Gove gets his hands on it, AM I RIGHT?), until tonight I had never read it, or seen it staged. I’ve been missing out. It was a flippin’ blinder. As it was the first night of previews, I wondered at the level of quality we’d be receiving. Apart from a few transition moments that could have been sped up, it was a flawless production: five stars all round. An intimate staging in the round, with forceful performances from almost all the cast.

Richard Armitage’s John Proctor was a delicate and complex husband. It is to his credit that the role did not overwhelm the production; it was by no means a one-man show, a chance to psychologically monologue. His performance was truly as part of a strong ensemble, appropriate for a play about the claustrophobic, meddling intimacy of a medium-sized seventeenth-century community. The shame and self-loathing that wears him down was concealed by a stoic visage and sturdy stance, until the play’s final scenes, where his emotional and spiritual frailty overflows to curve his spine and hunch his previously brooding frame. He is a man whose single adulterous act has destroyed not just his marriage, but his entire life, and the life of his community, and he bears that burden with no self-pity and no self-forgiveness. His love for his wife Elizabeth (Anna Madeley) and for his boys is not enough, ultimately, to spare him from his self-sacrifice at the end of a rope. The production should be applauded for the restrained and rejected sexuality between Proctor and Abigail (Samantha Colley), a painful flame that has long since singed and burnt out, and instead for its focus on the clear emotional and physical desire that John still holds for Elizabeth: their final kiss, on the brink of death, is one of the most powerful stage snogs I have seen. It’s the kind of kiss where you forget anyone else exists around you, because you just want to pour your soul into that other person’s mouth so for that one moment, they can taste your tears and your fears and the sensation rising in your chest. Their marriage may have turned cold, and been blighted by resentment on both parts, but in their final interaction, you can see why baby number four is on the way. Madeley’s Elizabeth was consummately portrayed: what seems like a shrugging Christian acceptance is instead a passionate belief in doing what you believe to be right. Although she wants her husband to live, she knows he dies following his faith in the angel Raphael’s call to the boy Tobias: ‘Do that which is good and no harm shall come to thee.’ Her final words, and the closing lines of the play, left her with tears in her eyes that continued to the curtain call: ‘He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him.’

It is striking in our ‘post-Christian’ society to feel how much God comes into the play; or, more aptly, how the manipulation of ‘God’ by the folk of Salem has the ability to give and to take away. Adrian Schiller and Jack Ellis enacted this double-sided religiosity with similar sensitivity, as the new-comer Revered Hale and Deputy Governor Danforth, whose Puritanical hat immediately screamed out WITCHFINDER GENERAL for the uninitiated. 

Ironically, he has a rabbit under there.

The world of hellfire and brimstone makes a screeching comeback for the people of Massachusetts, gold candlesticks and flying familiars threatening a simplistic, black-cloth and meeting hall everyday faith. The hysteria of superstition conjured up by ‘the children’ was terrifying played in the round on the darkened, hazy stage of the Old Vic. Orgasmic and epileptic convulsions, contorted yogic bodies and Bacchanal chanting overwhelmed the space, relaying the power these ‘children’ – sexualised young women, led by a manipulative and jealous chief – have over the townsfolk scared to – or glad not to – deny their pretences. Colley’s Abigail Williams is a phenomenal presence in every scene she appears in. Her professional debut, straight out of the Oxford School of Drama, I hope she will be a London stage regular for a long time to come. Like a manic Audrey Tautou in French stalker flick He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not,[1] nimble and flighty but deadly, she leapt around the stage with a crazed energy, a Dora-like sexuality that would’ve had old Sigmund scribbling down a line or two. I wouldn’t want to meet her down a dark alleyway, or have had her in my form at school. Nevertheless, the production, though recognizing the severe distemper that lays inside of this motherless, fatherless being, acknowledges that it takes two to tango, and two to lie down ‘where [the] beasts are bedded’. There is an animalism that takes hold of her, potentially brought on by taking her knickers off in cow pat. If this play does not blame John for the escalation of events, it doesn’t quite blame Abigail either. She’s a mad bitch, but unhinged, and possibly taken advantage of. I wondered if the production was perhaps nodding slightly in an Operation Yewtree direction, with the nubile yet infantile girls and the difficulties of the accuser/accused dynamic, but that throws up some problematic questions about the ultimate veracity of the Crucible girls’ bandwagon-jumping.

His wife's a witch, his wife's a witch not

The play was a good four hours with interval, and I expect this will shorten a fair amount as the show leaves previews. Nothing, however, felt unnecessary, and the tightness of the cast and the tense lack of catharsis throughout had me literally on the edge of my seat.[2] I cannot wait to see this production for a second time when it’s in full stride, but for a first performance, this was exceptional, and thoroughly deserved the standing ovation it received. I’m usually too British and sardonic for anything as sincere as an ovation, but I couldn’t help but join in.[3]

[1] A la folie... pas du tout (2002)
[2] We had cheap high-chair seats at the side of the stage; my feet couldn’t reach the floor.
[3] A little hop off the stool.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Merchant of Venice

What: Playing Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, dir. Bill Buckhurst (Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London; 6 - 29th March 2014)

When: Saturday 29th March 2014

Where: Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, Bankside

Why: Free tickets and lovely weather for March

How: Full of brunch; wearing a Venetian carnival mask



Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew.

One syllable, uttered fifty-five times in The Merchant of Venice.[1] It is a word that has never ceased to make me uncomfortable. As with every time I sing ‘Niggaz in Paris’ (frequently; normally when driving round town in the Fiesta) or ‘Brown Sugar’ (less so; normally when baking), I feel I’m appropriating a taxonomy that is not mine to appropriate. I have struggled in recent years with my heightened sensitivity to language, with my instantaneous and unrelenting reactions to words or phrases at which in the past I would not have stopped to stand and stare. I am used to a home life where my patience is often willfully tested; the provocateurs of which are used to being subjected to my leftist feminist ire. Whilst this visceral reactivity troubled me as I entered my twenties (‘Am I less fun? Have I lost my ability to take a joke?’), of late I have found solace in sticking to my guns. I am becoming the person I want to be, a person whose opinions I agree with, who I wouldn’t mind being sat next to at a dinner party (though I would hog the gravy and get all pas/ag mad at myself).

My reaction to ‘Jew’ is, however, one of those things I continue to trouble over. Why should I cringe at the word ‘Jew’? Why do I always say ‘Jew...ish person’ in conversation? If I’m not a Jew, can I say the word ‘Jew’? A Jew would say ‘Jew’. Here, however is the flipside: an anti-Semite would say ‘Jew’ too.

This, I think, is the crux of the matter for me. I went to a secondary school unsure of its own Catholicity, where there were very few Jews filling our pews. My contact with ‘Jew’ growing up was a mixture of RS lessons, Jesus Christ Superstar, and a History A Level which focussed heavily on Weimar and Nazi Germany. There are only so many anti-Semitic polemical pamphlets, newspapers, books, films, speeches and posters you can read about before you become pretty sensitive about the word ‘Jew’.

as told by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's
 Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
This is highly unfair on your everyday Jew. It’s not as if every contact I have with a black person leaves me fist-in-mouth suppressing an apology for slavery, or every time I go for a Chinese I have to stop myself from screaming GET YOUR DIRTY OPIUM OUT OF MY FOO-YUNG. But perhaps it is the lack of personal contact I seem to have had with the Jewish community, alongside a biased education system, that has left me socially awkward about the term ‘Jew’.

Bill Buckhurst’s production did not, however, shy away from ‘Jew’. Playing Shakespeare is an initiative of Globe Education and Deutsche Bank’s Born to Be programme and that has been running since 2005.[2] It offers all state schoolchildren within a London borough a free ticket to a performance, along with the opportunity to attend workshops and access online resources specially produced to aid pupils and teachers alike develop their understanding of their play. Having covered Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet in recent years, Merchant seems like an odd choice to present to thirteen-year-olds. Last year’s Romeo and Juliet was teenage romance made street: it had bus stops and burnt-out cars and underage sex (everything your average KS3 English student of the 2010s aspires to, in the eyes of Deutsche Bank?). Merchant poses some challenging logical, emotional and moral questions to the most ardent of Shakespeareans, let alone to kids encountering the Bard for the first time. Maybe that’s precisely why it makes a good choice – let them know early on that whatever you feel about Shakespeare in one play, is likely to be completely overturned by the next. With none of the gore of the Scottish play, the asinine humour of the Forest outside Athens, or the aforementioned horn wot lies in fair Verona, Merchant instead presents us with business deals, everyday racism and no real climax. It is a play I somehow managed to avoid all throughout my education, eventually reading it only as I was compiling copy for the ‘Characters’ section of the production’s microsite, during my research internship at the Globe last summer. As a fan of neat categorisation, I think I’d avoided it as a ‘problem play’. Girl got enough problems without problem plays!

Although the performance I attended was one laid on for the general public (relatively under-attended, it seemed, despite the fact that free tickets, yes, FREE TICKETS, were circulated; one of my many student hangovers is that I can’t turn down a free anything[3]), it was refreshing to be seeing it as a-new as the school pupils who had filled the playhouse in the preceding weeks.

Which is one of the reasons ‘Jew’ kept coming as a shock. Anti-Semitism is a real and current issue. Having recently read a whole load of (some might say, too many) Steven Berkoff one-act plays at work, several of which are dialogues between Jews approaching death at a concentration camp, it’s fair to say my school-initiated Jewish-sensitivity has been given a boost. What is at the root of the play’s unrelenting nastiness? A deeply ingrained cultural anti-Semitism from a kingdom that had expelled the Jews in 1290 and not let them slowly, quietly creep back in until the 1650s? Do we just have to accept that that was ‘just how it was’ back then? That one of our national icons was a big fat racist cunt with a sharp tongue and an even sharper pen, but that that was OK ‘cos ‘everyone was doing it’? Will my loveblind Bardophilia allow me to feel this, really, as a truth? Or is it that the nastiness is so hyperbolic that it becomes laughable, ironic even? And does that excuse it? In the position that we are in now, post-Holocaust, post-Israel, will we ever (should we ever?) be able to read or see this play without baulking inside?

Completely unbiased medieval portraiture

The Merchant cast did not seek to answer these questions, but neither did they seek to recoil from the play’s viciousness. Ognen Drangovski’s Shylock’s vindictive rage never allowed us to pity him for too long, although my heart was in my mouth during the famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech.[4] Thomas Coombe’s Gratiano embodied, in particular, the blind hatred of the ‘Native’ for the Other: spitting on Shylock’s forcefully discarded shawl at the end of the trial, Coombes presented Gratiano as a hanger-on of a lad, suggesting how it is that type of wordless hanger-on who can inflict the most disrespectful, most sinister of insults. The play ended powerfully, as Bethan Cullinane’s Jessica, Shylock’s prodigal daughter who runs off with her hot Christian boyf and her daddy’s money, was left alone onstage after the Venetians had danced off stage, whooping and cheering over their defeat and coerced conversion of the Jew. As she looked down at her father’s tallit, abandoned on the temporary thrust stage, the others reappeared, approaching her en masse with a reprise of Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’, which had opened the play, now stripped of its positivity, clawingly cold when sung with dead eyes. Shylock came through the yard to rejoin his daughter, holding her gaze without judgement as he faced her onstage, before finally and unexpectedly striking up a triumphant Jewish dance with the rest of the cast. As so often, so fascinatingly, happens at the end of Globe performance, a line is drawn under the horror that has come before.

There were other topics I had planned to touch on in this post,[5] but I have lost all appetite for them. It is a play that, for all its subplotting and comedic moments, will perpetually be of interest predominantly for its Jewish question; I make no apologies for trying and failing to work that one out for myself.

I do apologise, however, that this has been less theatre review, more circular soul-searching. Perhaps I should consider changing this blog’s title from “What Sophie Saw” to “The Morally-Troubled Ramblings of a Twenty-First Century WASP”.

[1] Statistic courtesy of – an invaluable resource for the lazy Shakespearean. (NB/ Open Source Shakespeare do not state which ‘version’ of Merchant they have used for this concordance, so it may be that the 1600 Quarto and 1623 Folio differ in this number, but it seems a trifle pedantic to go through each and count up the Jews.)

[3] At this point, I was going to upload a link to the Family Guy clip where Peter tries to sell Tibet to China, but, tellingly, it only has two Youtube appearances, one without sound and one rather muffled.

[4] Worth quoting at length, for its sheer potency:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?  if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

[5] Namely: how do I feel about the marriage of arts organisations, education and the open wallet of capitalism; the peculiar inclusion of a hot tub used briefly in two scenes; Antonio’s Wolf of Wall Street-esque suit; the unrelenting regional accents and euphemistic thrusts that get on my wick in every Globe production, to the point that my scribbled note on this on the train home was ‘Globe STOP IT’; the implications of Portia’s objectified future being locked in a ‘chest’, handed over in a ‘ring’; the absurdness but ultimately hilarity of the Prince of Aragon’s portrayal as a Flamenco dancer.

Saturday, 8 February 2014


What: Coriolanus dir. Josie Rourke (Donmar Warehouse, London; 6th December 2013 – 13th February 2014)

When: Thursday 30th January 2014

Where: Cineworld, Stevenage via NTLive

Why: I like Shakespeare; I listen to hype.

How: Giggling inappropriately with a good friend and a bag of Cadbury’s Pebbles

I’ll be the first to admit I’m a critical little bitch. I rarely leave anything one hundred percent taken. I am a bundle of pre-conceptions, which, when left inevitably unfulfilled, leave me cold and rueful. Never moreso than in productions of Shakespeare. Having spent a large part of the past five years in an intense, polygamous relationship with several of the Bard’s creations,[1] I know what I like and I like what I know. Which is period costume, perfect verse speaking, and historical accuracy.

Josie Rourke pissed on my fire. And I loved every second of it.

If the category ‘Shakespeare plays’ were to appear on Pointless, Richard Osman would be rattling off Coriolanus in the lower percentiles. It is the story of Caius Martius (later, ‘Coriolanus’), a Roman soldier with a Daily Mail disregard for anyone from a different background, of his rise to consul, and of his subsequent fall at the hands of the people’s tribunes and his longtime foe-turned-friend-turned-foe-again, Aufidius. It is not a play to get excited over: there is no ‘To be or not to be’, there is no supernatural, there is no multiple onstage slaughter. It is set in an early period of Roman history that nobody much cares for; it is all politics this and martial honour that. As a result, it is one of the lesser-staged of the ‘tragedies’. Rourke’s production, currently playing to sold-out audiences at the intimate Donmar Warehouse, will surely alter this trend.

This Coriolanus was pacy without being all cinematic scene-changes and swordfights. The cast were kept upstage throughout the first half of the play: the eyes of Rome were never quite taken off Caius Martius. The absence of these seated figures in the second half, rather than leading our Martius to a tragic hero’s introspection, rather highlighted his opacity – we are rarely allowed to enter into his inner world. This was a great strength of the production: too often are we forced to watch soap opera flinches as a hardened protagonist gallops through a psychological montage we must infer from a tilted head and distant eyes. Tom Hiddleston’s Martius only gave us softness in his final encounter with mother, wife and child; this softness is, however, not what Martius has been and what he must stand for, and so, he must, but a few minutes later, be ended, according to the rules of this tragic universe.

It's only bloody Coriolanus!
(Photo by Johan Persson, Donmar Warehouse website)

The hype surrounding Hiddleston has been largely to do with his ripped abs and the gratuitous shower scene (scholars have failed to locate this in the First Folio). He is, evidently, an attractive man. But he is moreover an incredible Shakespearean actor. He handles the verse as if it were his natural patter: never too unrestrained, learnèd but effortless, a true patrician.  There is a crystal clarity to his speech that overcomes imagery scholars have quibbled over. ‘Make you a sword of me sword?’ has, for example, long been a bone of contention. As Martius cries this to the Romans glorifying his defeat of the Volsces at Corioles, critics have struggled over whether in this line he is asking them whether they will make him their metonymic ‘swordsman’, or whether they will make him the very implement itself? In Hiddleston’s delivery, there was no question but that this young man, a character most comfortable with a martial tongue, whose speech, so blunt, desires to do away with language altogether, to become an unthinking, unfeeling, but most crucially, unspeaking, rod of death. ‘Tongues’ are a recurrent image in the play, the mouth’s sword that Martius employs for wont of any other weapon as he adapts to life outside the battlefield. Hiddleston’s performance is not varied, but it works. His constancy as the obstinate, proud Coriolanus is what pushes the play on. We do not hate him for it, but we do not sympathise either. He is perfectly opaque. This is not a characteristic we blame him for: in a world of martial savagery, conflicting orders and clamorous voices, we get the sense that our protagonist switches to auto-pilot rather than give in to PTSD.

Terrible water pressure
(Photo by Johan Persson, Donmar Warehouse website)

Hiddleston’s accompanying cast, whilst inevitably in the shadow of this inscrutable and thus eminently attractive figure, provided a strong backbone to the show. Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia avoided overly Freudian impulses to show us a mother and grandmother deeply invested in her family’s survival, and their survival as a certain class of Roman. Rather than setting up Volumnia and Martius’ wife Virgilia as sparring opposites thrust together out of necessity, Findlay’s Volumnia was a firm figure of support to Birgitte Hjort Sørensen’s helpless and (often sexually) frustrated Virgilia. Their interdependency subtly pointed out the inequality of such a society, where the autonomy of mother and/or wife comes and goes with the standing of the son and/or husband. Even Volumnia, whose ball-busting speeches are amongst some of the feistiest in Shakespeare,[2] had to resort to softly-softly-catchy-Martius in her final scene with her beloved son.

Helen Schlesinger’s Sicinia (a female ending for the play’s Sicinius) and Elliot Levey’s Tribunes made me go cold. Their ambition seems never to be for themselves, but for the future of Rome and its citizens: ‘What is the city but the people?’ This, in a way, makes it a harder pill to swallow. They are presented as a power couple, aroused by triumph, never appearing apart. Their verbal and physical intertwine makes monsters of them: they are the most vicious heads of the people’s ‘Hydra’, ever scornful, until the final realisation that the mercenary Martius has a very particular set of skills, and he will find them, and he will kill them.

Mark Gatiss’ Menenius becomes the vessel we pour all our love and trust into in this sea of vipers. His avuncular jolliness and calm attitude lulls us into believing his self-perpetuated superiority over the rest of the play’s characters. When he is turned away from Martius’ Volsican camp at the end of the play, we are left bereft of our final port of call: if Menenius can’t talk his way to a happy ending, there is no happy ending to be had. He should have listened to Cominius (Peter De Jersey’s ex-consul, who, unlike Martius, has broached the gap between soldier and civilian; another performance rooted in a consummate and understated voicing of the verse): shit’s going down.

That shit comes in the form of Hadley Fraser’s Tullus Aufidius, the only major role in the play that failed to impress me. Perhaps unfairly, as one thing I HATE (in capital letters) in productions of Shakespeare (a trap that the Globe falls into about forty times every season) is the regional dialect-ing of supporting characters. Yes, I know we’re not all from the Home Counties. Yes, I know it can be hard to illuminate ancient Roman geography. But no, I don’t think giving your enemy a Yorkshire accent necessarily clarifies the WHO’S IN WHAT CAMP AGAIN? problem. If anything, every time he appears onstage, it leaves you wondering why this Volscian hasn’t yet asked you if you want a brew.[3] The homoerotic tension suggested at times by Aufidius were not quite corroborated enough by Coriolanus to make an impact; any sexual chemistry fell besides the homosocial bond that these two men have, two figures bent on destruction as it is all that they know. A tighter comparison could have been drawn between these two foils, but I appreciate that we are perhaps meant to see Aufidius as a lesser everything than his Martius.

Cheeky peck
(Photo by Johan Persson, Donmar Warehouse website)

As a big fan of all things early modern, I tend to already be disappointed if, at lights up, there is no hint of a ruff. However, this production’s skinny jeans and Roman-ish shifts with a modern man-or-lady-of-leisure spin placed the play in a suitably inexact time and location; the dubstep and/or techno[4] replaced the drums of war to create a jarring disturbia of a city shedding its past but unsure of its future. The staging – bare but for the odd chair – worked perfectly in keeping with the play’s rhythm: there’s no time to rearrange furniture in pre-Republic Rome. The red and black squares daubed on the floor during the production, unmentioned, struck a cord with the play’s reminders of Martius’ inability to ‘frame his spirit’ as his elders would have him.

All the above comes from a film screening of the play. I have no idea, therefore, if sightlines or acoustics prevented any of the comments above from reaching their full potential. My first experience of NTLive (the National Theatre’s service for screening a single performance of a popular play across the country live on the night, complete with interval) was an overwhelmingly positive one, and when I inevitably don’t get my act together in getting tickets for the National’s King Lear, starring seasoned Shakespearean Simon Russell Beale, I will rush with gusto back to Cineworld to catch him on the big screen (though that may not be as much of a treat as a silver screen Hiddleston).

Which brings me swiftly on to my last comment on the NTLive experience. NTLive features an introductory montage of the venue and sound bites of actors’ interviews, before an opening gambit by ubiquitous what-is-she-famous-for-again personality Emma Freud. Her introduction, and subsequent interval mini-interview with director Josie Rourke, seemed to rely heavily on her sexual desire for Hiddleston’s hot Roman bod. I, of course, have been known to objectify men,[5] but I hate that I do, and when I catch myself doing it, I really do berate myself and try to stop.[6] If I want to not be objectified as a female, and if I really do want attitudes to change, then I need to stop being part of a culture of objectification.

Emma Freud, however, seems to have no such qualms. One of her questions to Rourke was something along the lines of ‘And why did you want to work with THiddy, voted World’s Sexiest Man?’ This would just not be OK if it was Jim Davidson interviewing Sam Mendes saying ‘And why did you cast the amply-breasted Melinda Messenger in tonight’s Hitchcock Blonde?’ I would be FURIOUS. I would be UP IN ARMS. I would be penning letters to the NT, or at the very least composing a sarcastic 140 characters about it with the hashtag #jimmustdie. To me, Emma’s question not only objectified a remarkable actor, whose stunning performance will be overshadowed by a cult-ish following of his admittedly and objectively stunning physicality, it assumed that a brilliant female director put sex above her art and her intelligence. This is not Comic Relief. This is not ‘YEAH let’s all make a joke of how attractive or funny we are in order to raise money’. This is ‘serious theatre’, that should make a serious impact on future performance criticism of this play. To belittle it to ‘Ooh isn’t he fit everybody!!’ is a little bit depressing, and a whole lot not-very-2014. We’re striving to be taken a bit more seriously than that, Emma.

And perhaps this is why, despite the absolute brilliance of being able to see a sold-out show a five-minute drive from home on a Thursday night, NTLive is just not LiveT. It is not and it never can be live theatre. I don’t expect to have a presenter’s witterings lead or unsettle me throughout Act 4 when I go to the theatre, and I don’t want it at home. I’m not saying that having some sort of contextual intro to the play is not a good idea – I really do think it’s an excellent idea to make the play more accessible, understandable and therefore enjoyable; I am just suggesting that perhaps in the future Emma Freud goes for jokes and questions that don’t diminish us to audiences and theatre professional solely driven by libido. However, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this post, I am a critical little bitch.

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

[1] As an English undergrad, I focussed on medieval and early modern writing; I took my Masters in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where I also interned as a researcher; I now proof-read Arden Shakespeare plays as my day-job at Bloomsbury Publishing.

[2] Although some of Volumnia’s more visceral images were sadly cut in this much-abridged production. For example, I sorely missed her twisted maternal musing on how,

the breasts of Hecuba,
When she did suckle Hector, look'd not lovelier
Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning.

[3] I apologise for making a bad joke at the expense of Yorkshire. Yorkshire is a beautiful and rich county and has produced one of my dearest flatmates. And she was EXCELLENT at making sure I always had a brew.

[4] Again, if it’s not lute music, I don’t really have a clue. It was all rather electronic and clanky (the technical term).

[5] One of the comments shared with my cinema companion being that Hiddy had a ‘juicy butt’.

[6] Though have subsequently had a discussion about this with above cinema companion, and perhaps it is necessary for evolution that we all sexually objectify each other? Is it possible for us to procreate, or even just to enjoy sex as the beautiful melding of hot bods that it is, without us at some time thinking ‘I would tap that. I would so tap that. I don’t care if he doesn’t know when to use less or fewer. He would definitely get it.’