Last night I went to see a screening of Coriolanus. Through National Theatre Live, an initiative that films and broadcasts British theater around the world; Josie Rourke’s production of Coriolanus was filmed and available for viewing in select movie theaters. I had to make quite a drive to get to one, however it was truly worth the joutney.
By the time the lights dimmed and the film began, there were hundreds of people in the theater. I heard a group of girls debating over Tom Hiddleston’s eye color behind me (“Blue? Blue-green? Hazel!”) and applause rippled through the crowd when the manager introducing the film said his name. Hiddleston was the big draw, but after the sold out performances of the play in London and the hysteria surrounding Hiddleston in general, this came as no surprise. During the play’s interval, Emma Freud interviewed Ms Rourke and placed a heavy influence on Hiddleston’s popularity and the title MTV bestowed on him: “Sexiest Man Alive.” To this Rourke laughed and replied, “He’s also an excellent actor.” After watching his performance tonight, I really must agree.
Coriolanus is not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays. It has a protagonist that has as much of the villain about him as the hero. The struggle between Coriolanus and his people is a difficult one because there is so much wrong on both sides, and so much suffering. The play deals with many things, and has nearly infinite layers of meanings and thematic material to draw upon and interpret, but what Hiddleston’s performance brought to the forefront was Coriolanus’ vulnerability and humanity. It is the story of a man who, among other things, bends to love and is killed for it. Hiddleston becomes this other man and embodies his rough ways, direct nature, purity, brutality, rage, and love beautifully. It is a wide range to play in a single production, and he executes the role with precision and emotional authenticity that is truly awe-inspiring, particularly in the climactic confrontation between Coriolanus and his family.
The other performers were wonderful as well. Mark Gatiss, familiar to most as Mycroft Holmes in the series Sherlock, was a brilliant Menenius, delivering the funniest performance in the play, but also some of the most emotional beats. He was something of a revelation to me in this role, as I had never seen him outside of Sherlock and Doctor Who. This performance made me eager to watch more of his work.
The entire production was gripping visually. The set was minimalistic, just a small stage with a graffiti-covered wall as its backdrop. The Donmar Warehouse in London where the play was staged only has a 250 seat capacity, therefore making for an intimate production. The graffiti changed to reflect the words and moods of the people as well as to denote changes of setting. The costumes were an interesting mixture of ancient and modern. Leather braces and chest pieces were combined with skinny cut pants and modern boots. It created a sensation of timelessness, a fusion of past and present which is perfect for a Shakespearean production, because one of Shakespeare’s most amazing qualities is his continuing relevance and timelessness. The story of Caius Marcius Coriolanus is tied to ancient Rome, but the man’s story is more important than the time period. And it is this man’s story that Tom Hiddleston gave voice to in his wonderful performance.
In Coriolanus, tragedy rumbles distantly throughout the play and finally bursts forth at the end. Coriolanus begins as a famous and lauded leader, and ends it as a “boy of tears,” drenched in his own blood instead of the blood of others, killed by people he has injured. Tom Hiddleston imbues a man who could be played as a villain with a deep layer of sympathy. So when Coriolanus dies, we weep for him. This is a performance that convinced me more than anything else I’ve seen that Hiddleston is a great actor. He has numerous film appearances coming up (Only Lovers Left Alive, Muppets Most Wanted, Crimson Peak), but I can’t help but hope he’ll continue with plenty of theatre – particularly if National Theatre Live will continue to make his performances available in cinemas. My only real complaint is that this is the only time I’ll be able to see this production, as there are no plans for a DVD release. I hope National Theatre Live and the Donmar Warehouse will change this in the future, as the RSC does plan to release David Tennant’s Richard II,which received the NT Live treatment late last year. This and other performances would reach so many more people if they would make them available to purchase on DVD. If this production is any indication, buying the DVDs would be well worth it.