Donmar Warehouse´s Coriolanus in Helsinki via NT Live

I saw Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare´s less known (late) play Coriolanus yesterday in Helsinki via NT live cinema.

For those who are not familiar with this art form, it´s simply a stage play shown live across the world as it happens. I was first introduced to this when Met New York started broadcasting opera live in cinemas everywhere. I love the democratic concept!

The screening of Coriolanus in Helsinki wasn´t live, though, but filmed and shown to places more fortunate than Finland several weeks earlier from London. Finnkino, that has a monopoly in Finland as a film distributor and theatre chain, obviously can´t organise that, but I´m glad of this chance. Tickets cost more than in regular cinema, but are still affordable.

I hadn’t seen nor read the play earlier. Did try to look into Ralf Fiennes´ (as a director and the lead) Coriolanus when it was on TV before Christmas, but gave up, mostly because I find Fiennes terribly boring no matter what he does.

On the other hand, since I am a great fan of  Tom Hiddleston, ever since  the insurmountable Hollow Crown series, I thought I might not fall asleep if he was on stage, and wanted to give the play a shot.

Because I went to se it alone and it ended very late, I didn´t have a change to discuss it with anyone, so I´m forced to discuss it in my blog for want of a better forum. You´ll find out I have a lot to say. There will be a small amount of spoilers, but since this production is now finished and not many screenings remain, they hardly matter.

It was as I expected, not one of the bard´s best, still as meticulous and finely constructed as his other – I keep wanting to say “better” – plays. I shall not compare his work or language to today´s plays, it´s just not fair to anyone.

What surprised me was how easy it was to identify with Coriolanus. Probably have to hand that to Tom Hiddleston, Shakespeare, and the director Josie Rourke, also the artistic director of Donmar. There is no other explanation for finding myself to be and think quite similar on occasion than a young Roman soldier and an unyielding warlord, is there?  (This might be a good time for some serious self-examination. Pride must
be my mortal sin, so easy it was to understand Coriolanus´ motives.)
I quite liked him. Tom Hiddleston is a sovereign actor, and I hope he will be around for a long time, and never start directing or something foolish some good actors tend to do.

It so happens that I have been lately reading Rubicon by Tom Holland (published 2003). Holland concentrates more on Rome´s more glorious days in history, instead of the beginning of the city-state like Coriolanus´time. If Coriolanus ever lived, it is believed to have been in the 400-300´s  BC, long before what we look upon as Roman empire at its peak.

Anyway, having read Rubicon helped in understanding the background, the morals, values and habits of the time and place. I highly recommend that book to anyone who´s at all interested in Roman history. Very easy to read, interesting, and not too thorough in a sense that the author is not trying to cover everything, but has made his subjective picks in what he thinks interesting and important.

Ton Hiddleston (the name is very very hard to write without the prefix “lovely”, but in this case easier than some) is a good choice to play Coriolanus. He´s young enough, able-bodied, and never overdoes anything, which is very important in this role.

Of course he looks absolutely hot with blood and gore all over him, his face covered in blood, the pale eyes creating nice contrast.
So I am cave woman with lizard brain, what of it!

I find the skin-showing shower scene justified in demonstrating the physicality of war, and in making the point the wounds actually do hurt.

Mark Gatiss I love more each time I see him. In Coriolanus he made the most of the character of an officer, and seemed to be enjoying himself very much doing it. So did I.

An intresting and important character in the play is Coriolanus´mother, Volumnia, played reliably by Deborah Findlay. The character is very Lady Macbethsque in her “unfeminine” will to power and control with wchich she drives her son on to glory. She even uses similar arguments in discussions than Lady Macbeth does.

I found the relationship of Coriolanus and Volumnia interesting and amusing also because  I have learned in discussions with Italian men,  their wives and girlfriends, that the mother always comes first: A good Italian son even today does what mama says,until the day she’s buried, sometimes longer. Seems to be a long tradition! From details in his other plays I can only conclude that Shakespeare (or whoever wrote the plays),has either spent time in Italy, or had some Italian acquaintances or friends.

The wife of Coriolanus, Virgilia, is unimportant. In a play executed with even smaller ensemble, she could well be left out. In this production the character is played by poor Birgitte Hjort Sørensen. She has only one or two scenes in with she is able to act a little. She gets to kiss Tom Hiddleston a lot, and that must be fun, but other than that, if I was an actress I wouldn´t accept the part at all, it´s so uninteresting. She would look nice, if it wasn´t for the terrible dress someone´s dressed her in.

None of the women´s costumes aren´t anything to write home about. Virgilia´s awful dress was a gossamer-influenced net-dress that didn´t fit, and did what no woman wants, made her small bum look big. That is not to be accepted! In some way I understand the endeavour, but the dress was tacky and didn´t work.

Voluptia, the mother, was dressed in a greyish robe that looked like something out of the 70´s singer Demis Roussos´carderobe. It was meant to be elegant in its simplicity and show her prestige, but failed.

Sicinia (Helen Schesinger) wore a little black dress of burgundy, and an unnecessary splash of some other colour. She had a collar-like necklace on that would have needed a more open collar, or preferably a different dress altogether.

In attiring men the production succeeded much better: The armourlike corselet gave the impression of tough soldiers, and looked good and sexy. The non-soldiers´clothing didn’t stick out, which has to be a good sign.

The latter half of the play starts after the famous war hero Coriolanus is expelled from Rome after not being to able to lick the public in order to gain consulship. It gave more to me than the first.

Towards the end Coriolanus’ opponent Aufidius (excellent Hadley Fraser) rose from the shadows of Mr. Hiddles to shine, and I enjoyed his work equally. The part and personality of Aufidius is as cleverly constructed as that of Coriolanus, but his character somewhat more complex and closer to a modern man.

The ending was impressive. After consenting to his mother´s pleading to spare the city, Coriolanus cancels his plans to invade Rome, and is consequently hung head down by his ankles by former opponent and present partner Aufidius. It wasn´t clear to me whether his throat was slashed or was he gutted, probably the first, but I prefer to think he was gutted., so much more umph!

The staging was appropriate and simple, and worked well. I didn´t understand the actors marching back and forth too many times  catwalk-like. Granted, the actors have to be put on stage somehow, and in a small venue that is a challenge, but that seemed very last season. Maybe it isn´t overused in England yet, I wouldn´t know, but I have seen that solution too many times before.

Subtitles were a little disturbing. When there is a text bar in the screen, one tends to look at it as it moves, want it or not. It´s the same in opera: In Finland´s National Opera the subtitles come in Finnish and English, maybe even Swedish, not sure, depends on the language of the opera, I guess. In opera one starts following the libretto of even such lunatic operas as those of Wagner, or Mozart´s Magic Flute, that you´d be much better off just listening to.

To Shakespeare I grant the subtitles. He well deserves them. It just takes some practise and will power from the spectator not to concentrate too much on them.

Whenever Shakespeare is performed, I would love the possibility to buy the script after the show to dwell on the best parts.  Wouldn´t have to be bound or anything…

Another thing that should not bother me but does, not being a native English speaker, is the British pronunciation of the Latin names.
I´m sorry Shakespeare, I cannot know how you intended it, or how Latin names were pronounced in your time. I think there is a possibility Latin was more familiar in those days, with its history as the language of the Catholic Church and science. So to me its Cori-oh-lah-nus not Cori-o-lanus, etc. But that´s just me being difficult, no real harm there.

Some years ago I saw King Lear actually live with Derek Jacobi. There was some commotion with the satellite connection, and the show ended quite late. When the performance is not live, as yesterday, I could do with less extra curricular advertising to save time. Especially when the audience now saw same clips twice, in the beginning and once again after the interval. The interviews of the cast and team many enjoy, and of course it is interesting, but at this particular case I would have preferred less talk and more play.

I enjoyed Donmar´s Coriolanus, and absolutely think it was great theatre, and a job very well done. It is not evident why that particular play was chosen, if not for the purpose of introducing Shakespeare in general. That, of course, is to be endorsed.

My best NT live-experience still remains Frankenstein, a 2011 production of National Theatre that I saw with a friend in an encore just after Christmas. It was the version in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays the monster and Johnny Lee Miller Frankenstein. In different performances, they would switch the parts. We would also have liked to see  Cumberbatch play Frankenstein, because he has proven to us he can make even the coldest characters likable.

We both agreed that the performance could only be described as – pardon me – very deep shit. Neither of us had any idea that Frankenstein the novel could be interpreted in such rich layers, and be dug so deep. She, not having read it, and I, having read it decades ago, and evidently missing some crucial points.  And we´re both former philosophy students!  I have seldom been so impressed with theatre I was with that one.

And that is why, my friends, I am sure to be attending future NT-live screenings whenever, wherever I can.

[EDIT Oct.2015. We did have a possibility to see a NT Frankenstein rerun this fall the other way around, Benedict as Frankenstein. It was, as anticipated, even better! Seemed there were some minor differences to the other version as weel, maybe even an added scene, but cannot be absolutely sure how our memories function.)

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