On Sunday, my roommates and I headed down to the Michigan Theater to see the National Theatre Live broadcast of Coriolanus.
I was a muddle of expectations: on one hand, I expected good things because it had Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss at the very least. On the other hand, the bits of the play I’d read (or read about) suggested that it involved a lot of politics (bleah) and Coriolanus being a jerk (which…could be interesting, but might just be annoying). On the other other hand, I’d heard good things from Em about it.
So I went, braced for a bit of gore, some speeches I couldn’t hear very well, the possibility of boredom.
I was blown away.
Why? The reasons include, but are not limited to, the following:
Set. We watched it on-screen, of course, but it still had the without-a-net feeling live theater gives – no editing, nothing between you and the players. The set was spare: a red wall with graffiti projected on it, a ladder, some chairs. Some explanation was given beforehand about the effects they sought to achieve with the red wall and graffiti; it’s a way of lampshading both ancient Rome and modern political discontent. The space was dedicated to the players, to movement, dynamic and compelling. The set changes were strangely electric. The costumes were a great mix of old and new – modern shirts and trousers, accented with leather cuffs and breastplates and carefully chosen jewelry.
Suspense. Despite knowing more or less how the play would end, I was on the edge of my seat. Virgilia’s anxiety over her husband somehow renders the possibility of grave injury to him as more probable and pressing. The discussions amongst Menenius, Brutus, Sicinius, and Cominius keep the question of consulship open, not a foregone conclusion. It even seemed possible that Coriolanus might kill Aufidius early on, or be killed in Aufidius’s household.
Sympathy. Throughout the whole play, each character made understandable choices and acted in consistent ways. Though it turned out badly, it’s hard to castigate Cominius and Volumnia for encouraging Coriolanus to become consul. It’s impossible to assign all the culpability to Coriolanus either. One could blame the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, but at least some portion of their double-tongued talk rings true.
Tom Hiddleston as Caius Marcius Coriolanus. As noted, this is hardly a sympathetic role. Caius is a successful general who takes over a city, thereby winning the name Coriolanus, but he’s rather less successful at public office. His campaign for consul – encouraged by his commander Cominius and his glory-hungry mother Volumnia – ends in a lot of yelling, since Coriolanus doesn’t think much of the citizens and doesn’t ever try to hide it. People lambaste him for his pride, for rudeness, for harsh speech, etc., and yet it’s easy to see why Coriolanus is proud of his military service, guarded with his scars, impatient with the easily led rabble, and angry when accused of treason. He goes from hollering in the streets to covering himself in blood in battle to clean-cut mama’s boy to smirking voice-stealer, and that’s just in the first couple acts.
Mark Gatiss as Menenius. For the bulk of the play, he alternates between encouraging everyone to behave reasonably (you can almost hear “Sherlock Holmes, put your trousers on,” except it’s more a “Coriolanus, take your shirt off so everyone can see your battle scars”) and being a master of sass:
Men. Our very priests must become mockers if they shall encounter such ridiculous subjects as you are. When you speak best unto the purpose it is not worth the wagging of your beards; and your beards deserve not so honourable a grave as to stuff a botcher’s cushion, or to be entombed in an ass’s pack-saddle. Yet you must be saying Marcius is proud; who, in a cheap estimation, is worth all your predecessors since Deucalion, though peradventure some of the best of ’em were hereditary hangmen. Good den to your worships: more of your conversation would infect my brain, being the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians: I will be bold to take my leave of you.
So that was quite entertaining enough on its own. But then I watched him bid Coriolanus farewell in Act IV, and approach his camp to beg Coriolanus to spare his erstwhile home from destruction in Act V. Terribly moving, even more in my estimation than the tears of Virgilia or the clamorous exhortation of Volumnia.
All in all, I went away flooded with thoughts and reeling with emotion. Somehow I didn’t expect that. It’s been a while since a Shakespearian play has been such a surprise for me. This, I kept thinking, this is why Shakespeare is still a big deal.
This is what theater should be.
This is what art ought to do.
Catch an encore performance if you possibly can, and prepare thy brow to crease in laughter, to frown, to furrow in sadness.