Review: NT Live – Coriolanus

Thanks to mega-Hiddles fan Jay I got to see the NT Live production of Coriolanus with Tom Hiddleston and a very fine cast broadcast from the Donmar Warehouse all the way to Glasgow, which gave me an excuse to visit that fine city again. My visit included a stop by the Glasgow Women’s Library in their new home which is quite lovely, an older library with a lot more space than their previous home with some really beautiful woodwork as well. I donated a copy of Unikirja so if you’ve been meaning to read it, there’s at least one copy in a UK library now. 😉

Coriolanus hasn’t been one of the most popular of the Bard’s plays, though the recent film version with Ralph Fiennes helped raise its profile. Director Josie Rourke spoke about the timeliness of the themes — the general who’s great at war but cannot make the transition to politics because his privilege makes him blindly callous to the needs of the people. Yet the people — or at least the tribunes who lead them — are shown to be vindictive opportunists ready to vilify the man they had just recently celebrated.

Required tourist photo in Glasgow (at last)
Required tourist photo in Glasgow (at last)

In short, there’s a lot of petard hoisting in this play.

While Emma Freud babbled about the sold out audience being there for the sexy Tom, Rourke championed her very sexy cast (admirably without getting prickly at Freud’s obliviousness). That’s what made the play work and superbly so.

Of course Hiddleston was terrific: anyone who’s seen his turn in three of the four plays in The Hollow Crown (and if you haven’t shelled out the mere £10 for the box set you’re missing terrific value) knows that while he might be an internet phenomenon for his dance moves and spontaneous sense of fun, he also has serious ambitions. His Coriolanus is a passionately proud man, who spurns those who spurn him with tragic results. Shakespeare’s leaders can be utterly capricious and require a lot of the work to make their turnabouts believable. Hiddleston’s bloody-soaked general remains convincing as he takes a town more or less single-handedly, then persuades his bitter enemy to join him in attacking his mutinous land.

But he’s part of a terrific (and compact) ensemble. Mark Gatiss is so funny and erudite in so many different projects like his snarky Mycroft Holmes, that you can forget just how good an actor he is. His avuncular Menenius supports his protegée, but he also basks in the reflected glory, so he’s stung to find that even he can be denied when the city turns on the hero.

Deborah Findlay, probably fixed in many minds from her turn as the hand-wringing, dithering Miss Augusta Tompkinson in Cranford, offers an imperious Volumnia, proud of the ruthless son she has nurtured, who loves every scar he bears and the blood that crowns him. In contrast to the relatively minor role given to the general’s wife (though well embodied with a great deal of sympathy and pathos by Borgen star Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), his mother has been his model and his inspiration. To see her humbled by his about-face, to beg him to relent, only a heart of flint could be unmoved. Findlay really amazed.

Helen Schlesinger is another one of those tireless actors who’s been in everything, though the first role that came to my mind was her turn in Persuasion, as the ailing and impoverished friend of the suffering Anne Elliott. In league with Elliot Levey’s Brutus, Schlesinger’s Sicinia seethes with a righteous anger and the two tribunes take advantage of the grain shortage to turn the cheering crowds into a jeering mob by focusing their fear and anger onto the convenient target of the would-be politician/general. Coriolanus makes it easy for them by sneering at the hungry throngs, whom he believes do not deserve to eat because they have not fought in battle:

Thus we debase
The nature of our seats and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o’ the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles.

Hadley Fraser imbues Aufidius with a passionate hatred and convincing admiration for the man who defeats him with such courage. When the banished Coriolanus appears before him and offers to let him execute him, his every limb shows the conflict between the satisfaction killing him would give and the waste such a murder would be. You can tell Aufidius wants to kill him even as he kisses him in forgiveness and they join forces to lay Rome waste.

The production is spare and yet vivid with an inspired use of paint and light in creating the scenes. The costuming for the most part had a timelessness (Levey’s costume alone looked disconcertingly modern) and a flow. I loved Gatiss’ costume in particular. The copious use of blood left no doubt to the military cost of the events — especially the big final splash which gets bonus points for gruesome vividness.

A superb theatre night — all the better for the fantastic gift that is the NT Live transmissions. For the majority of the world that can’t make it to London for every performance, this is a real treat. I know Chloë was watching in Switzerland — and millions doubtless around the world. The National Theatre is a real treasure; it’s wonderful that we can have the experience virtually, too.

Be sure to check out Todd’s round up of Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V.


Today is also Russell Hoban‘s birthday; we keep up the tradition of the Slickman A4 Quote Event and spread the words of this wonderful writer around the world so others may discover his singular voice. I made a virtual quote this time around because I’ve been playing around with Pixlr far too much.