I never really considered productions of plays being adaptations of the original written play. Unless it is play to screen – like Joss Whedon’s film and modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, it seemed that productions were just productions of the written play, but when I saw the live stream of the London Theater production of Coriolanus, in my local movie theater, it changed my perception.
The play is formally named, The Tragedy of Coriolanus and is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays and is part of his Historical play set. The story is of a man named Caius Martius, who is a patrician, or aristocratic soldier who has little compassion for the lower classes. He is heralded as a hero after nearly single-handedly defeating the attack of the Volcians, led by his rival Tullus Aufidius at the neighboring Italian city of Corioles and is given the name Coriolanus. However, a famine had rampaged Ancient Rome and the people are in a rage against the upper class. To have their voices heard they have tribunes (representatives) to stand up for them. Coriolanus is given a hero’s welcome, and the Senate offers to make him consul.
In order to gain this office, however, he must go out and plead for the votes of the plebeians (common people), a task that he undertakes reluctantly. At first, the common people agree to give him their votes, but they later reverse their decision at the prodding of two clever tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, who consider Coriolanus an enemy of the people. This drives the proud Coriolanus into a fury, and he speaks out intemperately against the very idea of popular rule; Brutus and Sicinius, seizing on his words, declare him a traitor to the Roman state and drive him into exile, where his rival surprisingly takes him in and together they plan a bitter attack on the city that betrayed him. For those who have not read or seen this play, I will not spoil the rest.
It is not like a British theatre group to change Shakespeare’s work, and this followed suit, only possibly taking out extraneous and unnecessary but unnoticeable moments from the play. It was done as it would be read, but with more life.
This production of Coriolanus was directed by Josie Rourke and starred Tom Hiddleston as Caius Martius Coriolanus, Mark Gatiss (Mycroft from BBC’s Sherlock) as Menenious a friend and mentor to Coriolanus, Hadley Fraser as the rival Aufidius, Deborah Findlay as his mother Volumnia, Birgette Hjort Sørensen as his wife Virgilia, and Elliot Levy and Helen Schlesinger as Brutus and Sicinia respectively.
Put up at the Donmar Theater in the West End of London, this Coriolanus was different than what you would expect from a Shakespearean play. The theater itself used to be a banana-ripening warehouse, and was utilized as a minimalist theater border lining a black box theater. They used the back brick wall for all of their scenery, which stayed painted half way up in red. It was painted with a bit of graffiti at the beginning, and had firm metal handles in it, which became multi-purpose throughout the play. It was also used as a projector screen to display words of the people chanting in glowing letters.
The stage itself looked like a small canvas square with a ladder upstage left, which allowed Coriolanus to climb offstage. The only set beyond that is a square painted in red by a child at the beginning, chairs to hold characters actively or inactively (as if they were offstage), and a small black square that is aptly painted later on to put Coriolanus on trial – twice. The little set was used very well, with unique staging because the audience was on three out of four sides, having everything stay the same and yet change so seamlessly between scenes. The red square looked like the ropes of a boxing ring, and with scenes of social unrest, political distress and all out war it was perfect for each and every scene.
This minimalist idea continued onto the characters. The costumes were a mix of period and contemporary clothing. It was all very simple and clean, with only a flick of leather chest armor and a sword. The near empty stage never felt empty as it was filled with the voices and presence of each character.
Tom Hiddelston is a fearless actor who took this role full on with the ablity to move seamlessly between all parts of the role and emotions. He portrayed Coriolanus as a complex human being, going from loving son and husband to arrogant aristocrat, from fearless warrior to sarcastic fool, from cold-hearted to soft-hearted. He didn’t put on a mask and go overboard or put on any airs like I see most Shakespeare done. It was a stripped down performance that showed him as a real man and did not feel like we were just watching an actor play out a scene, although I will say I remarked that he was an amazing actor because he could cry on cue and it was absolutely real.
His performance along with the smaller and less cluttered stage was a recipe for intimacy that was felt throughout. At times it seemed so real that it felt like we were all voyeurs looking in on something private. We are there with him every step of the way, watching him become warring god and then wash the blood away to become a flawed and scarred human again, and besides making the whole theater cry with him, he brought us to laugh as he went from having a fit to comforting his mother, and his sarcastic jests as he had to humble himself in front of the “unworthy common folk”.
I could continue to fan-girl over Tom, who is a fine piece of man as seen in this with a near see-through humble shirt and a nice tight pair of jeans, and his fabulous portrayal, but he was not the only amazing actor there. The entire cast made up a superb ensemble, whom under the director were able to bring to life this unique vision of a story that is still relevant today. They all became their characters and spoke Shakespearean English as plain as it was modern English. Where most Shakespeare plays I have seen have been put on as Shakespeare intended, with over acting, big gestures, and over explaining so that any person anywhere in the Globe could understand what was going on, this was a toned down version; a modern play with Shakespearean words.
It is so difficult to talk about this production without bringing up every single moment in it. It isn’t just Tom Hiddleston, it is the power of voice and intonation and character of all the actors, especially Deborah Findlay, Mark Gatiss (as one might expect from Mycroft… with a little more heart), Hadley Fraser and the two tribunes. The way they spoke was natural and human even if the words seem foreign, with snark and sarcasm and love. It was all easy to understand, even if you could not fathom how any of them could memorize those long speeches. The only thing that was questionable at times was the choice of music they used as they changed scenes. It seemed, at first, to be a weird techno fusion, but as the play went on it turned into more warlike drums and sounds that built tension.
This play was put up with such integrity and vision that it easily got under your skin and into your heart. All the actors spurred so many feels; anger, friendship, rivalry and camaraderie, and so much more. Honestly, I would love to have played Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife, because not only was she a fun character, but she got to kiss him about 4 times throughout the play. Though I would settle for being his rival, Aufidius, because he got to sword fight him, oh and *spoiler alert* kiss him too.
The only way to do it justice is to see the production; the patrons of the theatre I was in gave it a standing ovation even though the actors were not present to receive the applause. Check National Theatre Live for broadcasts and rebroadcasts in theatres near you. Hopefully, they will realize that this is a production too good to keep under wraps and will produce a DVD version.