6/7/2020 CORIOLANUS National Theatre at Home (YouTube)
It is “A Place Called Rome,” and the people in the street are in an “occupy” frame of mind – food is scarce, and the one-percent are getting more than their fair share. A spontaneous uprising is cruelly put down by the police under the direction of General Caius Marcius. Soon, an external threat in the form of a Volscian invasion supplants all the internal strife. General Marcius is the hero of the day, and defeats the enemy, led by the fierce Aufidius. The General wins the stronghold of Corioles, and, returning to Rome, he is given the honorific of “Coriolanus” and is convinced to run for consul. Ever the proud Patrician, Marcius soon alienates the masses, and is banished from Rome after the tribunes apparently convince everyone he is really a dictator-in-the-making. Joining his former enemy, Marcius seeks revenge by helping coordinate another invasion.
Clearly, there are Anger Management issues going on here.
I may be a little tongue-in-cheek with my plot summary here, but it is the singular achievement of this 400+-year-old play to closely reflect contemporary ebbs and flows of political partisanship. We see a Rome deeply divided along class lines and even more sharply divided along party lines. It is a political milieu in which a perceived snub can have fatal consequences, in which a lie repeated often enough becomes a “truth,” in which there is no room for compromise or concession.
It is paradoxically also a milieu in which the bitterest of enemies can form an uneasy alliance whenever it becomes mutually convenient. Marcius and Aufidius have a long history as blood-foes, and their hand-to-hand fight in Corioles is predator-fierce no-holds-barred extreme. Yet, when Marcius’ anger leads him to seek revenge against Rome, Aufidius is only too willing to put his hatred on hold to achieve his own goals. That the truce is fragile and uneasy is the primary plot-mover of the coldly vicious climax.
Add into the mix a coldly scheming mother (Volumnia) who weaned Marcius on anger and conflict, and you have a tragic hero whose inevitable fate is as much engineered by the mother who loves him best as it is by the nemesis who hates him most.
London’s National Theatre at Home has taped its 2014 Donmar Warehouse production starring Tom Hiddleston, and delivered it to our home screens in a too-soon ending 7-day run (available on YouTube until Thursday 6/11 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHqkEruwBT0) and it is a spare and brutal experience, one that makes all the complexities of plot crystal clear (unlike every production I’ve seen to date, including the 2012 Ralph Fiennes movie adaptation).
Normally, Caius Marcius Coriolanus comes across as cold and uncompelling, a proud man whose attitudes cannot ever (and will of course never) mesh with the principles of a democratic society. The upper class DESERVES to be the upper class and it is their job to care for those of lower standing. That this Rome’s Plebians are a singularly cowardly and scheming lot does nothing to recommend the viability of full democracy.
Yet here, Mr. Hiddleston is a marvel. Yes, his anger reaches the rafters (at one point literally as he climbs out of sight to enter the ill-fated Corioles), but he also has moments of quiet, of affection for his allies, the senator Menenius, the general Cominius, his wife and son, his (shudder) mother. He even lets a modicum of charm occasionally peek out, making his “winning over” of Aufidius’ lieutenants believable and compelling. This makes his tragic fate all the more moving and cathartic, and believe me, this is the most brutal tragic fate you’re likely to see on any stage. (**)
Deborah Findlay is a frighteningly cold Volumnia, matching Mr. Hiddleston rant for rant, proudful excess for prideful excess, cold regard for cold regard. It is a remarkable performance, filled with the expected sound and fury, but also buttressed by pride-of-family and devotion-to-son. As Aufidius, Hadley Fraser gives an elegant portrait of conquering nobility, a pragmatic leader who recognizes his most hated enemy is his path to victory, as long as he can eventually exact his obsessive vengeance. Also remarkable is Mark Gattis as the whimsically wry Menenius, whose “Metaphor of the Belly” adroitly amuses as it lays out the groundwork for the class turmoil that follows.
As (occasionally) happens in other productions, the two scheming tribunes, Brutus and Sicinia, are played by a man and a woman (Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger), giving their conspiracy an overt (and unexpectedly convincing) sexual tension.
Performed on a bare thrust stage, a brick-and-graffiti wall on the fourth side, a ladder reaching to the sky, the cast is on stage throughout, arranging chairs to set different scenes, painting spaces on the floor that achieve significance, strewing (and clearing) rubble and rose petals and voting vouchers as the scenes require. This gives the production a “lean and hungry” look, an air helped by the semi-modern dress (with leather “armor” used in lieu of metal).
This is a very female-led production, directed by Josie Rourke and with women heading the set, sound, and fight-choreography departments. I suspect (with my male prejudices) that this is why this Marcius is more human than others, why the female characters seemingly have more influence than ever before, why female “faces in the crowd” are evident in every group scene. IMHO, this strengthens the play, makes it more accessible to those whose Shakespearean tragedy ends with Hamlet, Lear, and that Scottish one. For me, it made the 2:35 running time zoom by like an army of barbarians charging the gate.
Coriolanus is a rich and bloody tapestry, a theatrical battle between visceral violence and elegant language. It is a remarkable at-home experience for anyone missing live theatre, for any Anglophilic theatre folk who just cannot afford another ticket to London, and for any Tom Hiddleston fan who JUST KNEW there was more to him than Loki.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #NationalTheatreAtHome #Coriolanus)
** Spoiler Alert: I was amused by an addended video reuniting Mr. Hiddleston, Ms. Findlay, and director Josie Rourke in which we learn that part of the rehearsal process was a test to see how long a person could hang upside down without passing out.