Sunday, 23 February 2014

Coriolanus at the Donmar

First of all, may I just mention - and this is addressed most particularly to the organisers at NT Live - that, before I see the play I've come to see, I do not need Emma Freud gushing about the cast or the script or whatever else comes into her artfully tousled head. I do not need to watch any of the actors opining about anything, least of all, without any supporting argument, about how Fascism is on the rise everywhere, throughout the entire world.  I do not need to watch the costume designer flicking through her Ipad full of 'research' about ancient Rome either.

What is more, I do not need, after the interval - just to thoroughly destroy whatever tiny skerrick of atmosphere might still exist after fifteen minutes in the popcorn-reeking multiplex foyer - Emma Freud popping up again to patronise me for a few more minutes nor Josie Rourke, the director, informing me that protests at the beginning of the play about the cost of grain can be compared directly to today's electricity price discontent.

Apart from anything else Coriolanus is quite a long play. And having it explained beforehand that the theatre it's being performed in was once a banana warehouse doesn't make it any shorter.

So what of the production itself? Leaving aside that, by the time it actually began, my nerves were jangled with the onslaught of pre-film loviness whipped up by the Freud woman, it was magnificent - and also rather bad.

What was magnificent was the performance of Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus. His voice control is extraordinary. His movement and general, for want of a better phrase, emotional intelligence was breathtaking.

Unfortunately, a lot of his colleagues, particularly those in the smaller parts, were badly directed and choreographed. The opening scene was actually cringe-making - the overwrought gestures and expressions of one of the actors in particular seemed to have been imported from some other, more stylised form of theatre - Kabuki perhaps? - or maybe that's just what we used to call 'overacting.'

The part of Coriolanus's mother is one of the great theatrical roles for mature women. In this production, it seemed to me that the actress never quite caught the rhythm of her lines. It also struck me that she acted with her hands and her upper body, rather than moving freely. As a result, she remained too static, plonking herself in front of her son and wringing her hands and gurning in a boringly repetitive way

Mark Gatiss was not bad as Menenius. I dislike his simpering, but that's my problem. A great deal of the time he gave the words more or less their due, and that is ultimately what is required of an actor of Shakespeare. It's a difficult role because it teeters on the edge of comedy, but the play is not comic and therefore it cannot really be played for laughs.

Coriolanus's wife, Virgilia, is an even more unrewarding part than that of Menenius. The Danish actress who was cast in the role did her best to create something from lines that portray her as little more than a cypher but seems to have been ill-advised by her director, who may have been trying to beef up the character. For instance, at the end of Scene III, Virgilia, in this production, delivers the line, "I wish you much mirth" in a manner that suggests she has suddenly become possessed by a demon, which gives one a jolt. However, she then reverts to demure blonde bombshell for much of the rest of the play.

The staging itself seemed to me to be very much a result of the limitations of the Donmar theatre itself. If I'd been one of the actors, I might have resented the amount of time I had to sit extraordinarily still at the back of the stage, which is what all the players had to do, some for very long periods, when they were not involved in the action. I distrusted the use of very loud, bass beat music between scenes, as I thought it was added to try to whip up the audience's emotion, when it became clear that the production might not be as gripping as had been hoped.

Josie Rourke indicated in the interview Emma Freud had with her before the second half, (during which there was much girlie squealing from the two of them about Kiddleston's apparent 'sexiness' - as my companion pointed out, if they had been two men discussing a woman in similar terms, they'd have been in big trouble), that as far as she was concerned Coriolanus was a bad person and the play was a warning about leaders who didn't respect 'the people'.

I think the view we are given of 'the people' in the play is very far from totally approbatory - for instance, when Volumnia says "the eyes of the ignorant [are]/ More learned than the ears" it seems to me that Shakespeare is being both critical and extraordinarily prescient about our visual age, (although possibly Rourke's reading would cast Volumnia as a hateful patrician vilely disparaging the people as ignorant). In fact, the play strikes me, (not that I actually know a tremendous amount about these things), as one of Shakespeare's most complex. In this context, one element of this production that intrigued me was the way in which on two or three occasions there seemed to be visual allusion in Kiddleston's posture and the way he was lit to Old Master depictions of Christ's final hours. If these were intentional, the analogy raises interesting ideas.

Coriolanus is a fascinating play. Hiddleston shows himself in this film to be a truly wonderful actor. Rourke does not show herself to be a wonderful director. All in all, the thing was a curate's egg.

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