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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus

I just saw Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus.
He was incredible!

You must go see it -- it’s broadcast in movie theatres around the world with NTLive. Check your local listings here:

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I do want to share my thoughts with you.
I was expecting a great performance from Tom Hiddleston.
But I was also confused. Why he would want to do this play? Why not Macbeth? Why not Hamlet? What was it about this play and this character that attracted him?
I think the character of Coriolanus is almost impossible to portray correctly. As much as actors try to humanize the character, the more I think about the character, and the more I read the Coriolanus play, the more I'm convinced that Coriolanus is not supposed to be human, he is not supposed to have more than one dimension.
He is a monster. 

He is a feral animal that has been fed a constant diet of raw meat his whole life. All he knows is war and death. He likes blood. A lot.
His mother -- one of the most frightening mothers in all of fiction -- raised her son to kill or be killed, and she admires him for the scars he has suffered. 
It is when he tries to become more than what he is, it is when he tries to be a good father, husband and son that he finally becomes vulnerable and is killed for it.
It is in the final moments that his mother, against her own nature tries to make her son un-learn all that she has taught him. 

with Hadley Fraser as Aufidius

She has been the only one in his entire life who could really command him. She is the only one he really fears.
He obeys her command, he goes against his own nature, and is killed.
When we think of Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia, we should think of famous ancient Romans like Julia Agrippina and her son Nero.

Agrippina plotted against her brother, emperor Caligula, later married emperor Claudius (her uncle!) to gain power, killed and banished her enemies, poisoned Claudius, and then fought a power struggle with her son (who became emperor) so bitter that he had her killed.
Nero is one of the worst tyrants in history. He is perhaps most famous for possibly setting fire to Rome. The city burned for five days while, as the story goes, he played the fiddle.
When Coriolanus is banished from Rome (for fear of his becoming a tyrant), he turns around and marches on Rome. The Senators, his mother, and his old friends fear that he will burn the city.
Cominius was a general and friend to Coriolanus. He tries to talk to his old friend and commander out of sacking Rome:

I urged our old acquaintance, and the drops
That we have bled together. Coriolanus
He would not answer to: forbad all names;
He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
Till he had forged himself a name o' the fire
Of burning Rome.

Coriolanus’ mother tells her son that if he burns Rome, he will be remembered ‘with curses’ and his name will forever be ‘abhorr’d.’
The point is that, Coriolanus is not far from being a Nero, whose name has forever been ‘abhorr’d.’ That is what the Senators were afraid of when he is becomes Consul, and they were not wrong.
He wants to be a tyrant, he wants to dominate. 
If he had ruled Rome, the city might not have survived his tyranny. Even when he is banished, Rome might not survive his army. 
Either way you look at Coriolanus, he will burn Rome -- like Nero.

To me, that is the central question of the play. What  do you do with such a powerful leader -- one who can destroy you no matter what?
As much as I admire actors who try to make this character human, I think they have made the wrong decision. There is no humanity in Coriolanus. As  Menenius says: “there is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.”
Having said that, Tom Hiddleston was amazing.
In fact, after watching him attempt to put feeling and emotion in his portrayal of Coriolanus, I was stunned. 
Perhaps I have been wrong about Coriolanus. Perhaps I should eat my words.
I think Tom Hiddleston may well be the greatest Shakespearean actor working today. He communicates the language so well, so clearly, with so much feeling, and as if it is truly his own thoughts -- and not just words that were written 400 years ago by someone else.
If you liked him in The Hollow Crown series, you will love him in this. But whereas it is easy to like the character of Prince Hal/Henry V, it is far more difficult job to make Coriolanus a sympathetic character.
And Tom Hiddleston does that. 

He makes this beast of a man so likeable, so friendly and funny. He makes you feel bad for him when he is banished from Rome for having tyrannical tendencies. He makes you feel his loneliness when he is a pariah, far from Rome. He makes you feel his rage when he decides to march on Rome. He even makes you share his bitterness towards his old friend Menenius (played to perfection by Mark Gatiss).

Mark Gatiss

When his mother, wife and son come to him and beg for him to spare Rome, I could not believe how he cried real tears, making his ‘eyes to sweat compassion.’
And he cried with so much dignity. Astonishing.
I have to admit, as much as I admired his performance, I was troubled by the fact that he is making such a monster so sympathetic. There were many women in the audience around me who swooned over him throughout the entire performance!
I don’t know how he could make evil so attractive.

His performance as Loki in the Marvel films is iconic, and he deserves great praise for the success of those films. But I predict that his work here, in Shakespeare, will one day eclipse all of his other work.
But, I really hope that Mr. Hiddleston never runs for public office. He would win in a landslide and could probably get away with murder!
The cast was excellent. I don’t want to single out anyone, but I do have to mention Deborah Findlay, who played Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother.
I doubt I will ever see a better Volumnia. Just brilliant. She really captured the arrogance of a patrician mother of Rome’s great general. This character is meant to be almost even more frightening than Coriolanus himself, and she really makes that clear in every scene.

Deborah Findlay as Volumnia

Ms. Findlay also found a way of communicating this character’s towering ego without making her completely inhuman.
At the end, her climactic speech to Coriolanus, to spare her and Rome, was just perfect.
And as much as she was emotional, I thought it was brilliant how her son, the great general, was the one doing all the crying! Ha!
The production overall was excellent. The director, Josie Rourke, emphasized the raw and simple nature of the story. The production was very simple, in the Donmar Warehouse, and it served to highlight the performances.
I can’t recommend your seeing this production highly enough.

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