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.’