I come bearing gifts – not for the holidays, which are almost on us, but a dark treat for a dark January day when festive euphoria has been succeeded by credit card hangover. I prescribe a top-notch top-up for the creative well, a brilliant portrait of a tragic hero by one of the world’s greatest playwrights, complete with clever staging, superb acting, and last but not least, bonus man-candy.
The 250 seat, not-for-profit Donmar Warehouse’s new production of Coriolanus stars Tom Hiddleston as the alpha soldier who should have stayed out of politics. He’s supported by a superb cast including Mark Gatiss (love him in Sherlock). Over-excited young women have been queuing overnight in foul, filthy London weather for scarcer-than-hen’s-teeth tickets, but on 30 January 2014 you can watch it from the comfort of a cinema seat thanks to a fantastic initiative called National Theatre Live, which broadcasts the cream of British theater live from the stage to cinemas around the world. Some cinemas in the US are also offering repeat showings at later dates.
I was lucky enough to get a front-row seat for last Thursday night’s performance, thanks to an invitation from a theater-loving friend who’s a long-time supporter of the Donmar. I owe her, big-time. It’s the best thing I’ve seen in ages and well worth making an effort to see.
Human nature hasn’t changed in the four hundred and something years since Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus. The storyline is crystal clear and the characters are instantly recognizable, from the hero’s pushy mother and weepy, supportive wife to the scheming, rabble-rousing politicos who engineer his downfall. Coriolanus is a superb military commander, acclaimed as a hero (the name is awarded to him to mark a victorious campaign), but the absolute arrogance that brings him success on the battlefield is a liability when his friends and family persuade him to turn to politics, and his refusal to play the game is ruthlessly exploited by his enemies.
The best story-tellers create situations that put their protagonists under the greatest possible stress, test the fault-lines in their personality to breaking point, and force them to make critical choices that reveal their essential nature and drive the action. Shakespeare does it to breathtaking effect in Coriolanus, and Tom Hiddleston’s compelling portrayal makes the hero’s fateful journey not just credible but inevitable.
It’s inspiring to watch, and fascinating to think that the same character flaws could be used to create a powerful tragedy like Coriolanus, or a witty romance like Pride and Prejudice. Darcy’s famous confession to Elizabeth, “I was spoilt by my parents, who … allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own,” applies equally well to the general and the gentleman.
Oh – and Tom Hiddleston gets his own Darcy-esque moment, stripping off his armor post-battle to wash the blood from his muscular torso and cleanse his wounds. He may have been gasping with pain, but the girls in the gallery were gasping in appreciation.
If you get the chance, go and see it.
Information on participating US and UK cinemas can be found here. (Sorry, Micki, the project doesn’t seem to extend to Japan).