Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

The National Theatre's Coriolanus

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus photo by Spencer Murphy

In the National Theatre's trailer, Tom Hiddleston explains that he explores the conflict "at the heart of every public figure - what it means to serve in public office, the private war between personal integrity and popularity." Something there for the likes of Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper and friends, me thinks.

Inside the Cineplex Odeon Niagara Square's Theatre, I watch Hiddleston masterfully portray William Shakespeare's Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare's later plays written when the bard was fully seasoned and politically nuanced.

The play revolves on two key issues - first, the powerful relationship between a mother and son, and second, the ensuing lethal combination of pride and might which left unchecked, inevitably leads to fascism. In fact, Shakespeare's third and last Roman play easily leaps from the 1600s to WWII tyranny under Benito Mussolini.

The National Theatre broadcast is part of the marvellous Odeon Theatre "Front Row Tickets" series which opens world class theatre, opera and dance to the masses. This time, the action is cleverly staged inside the Donmar Warehouse theatre, a claustrophobic, 251-seat theatre in London's Covent Garden, formerly a fruit and vegetable market as explained in the introduction. Immediately, we have Shakespeare's tragedy boxed into a rather confined microcosm, awaiting cosmic interpretations.

And like a telescope, Donmar's Artistic Director Josie Rourke further compresses the action at the start with an actor painting a bright red rectangle on the floor to encompass the action, the colour hinting at the deluge of blood (and further symbolism) to come. (When voting, the citizens mark red ballot slips, later torn to shreds.) Rourke's battle-scenes are cleverly accomplished by utilizing chairs and ladders and are lit by eerie fireballs. At one point, a tiny white box is painted inside the red one, reserved for Caius Martius, single-minded and bloody-minded, and soon to earn the title Coriolanus by displaying incomparable valor in the Roman siege of the Volscian city, Corioli, but afterwards, just like the tiny painted compartment, he is severely limited and doomed by extreme hubris.

The company. Photo by Johan Persson

Tom Hiddleston excels in the title role as does Deborah Findlay as his mother, Volumnia, who takes the concept of rabid "hockey mom" worshipping a child's trophies to a whole new dimension, ecstatic with her son's some 27 body wounds and scars from battle, reminiscent of the Spartan mothers' attitude when they sent their boys to fight, advising them to return home victorious or dead upon their shields. Mark Gatiss, whom we know as TV's Sherlock Holmes meddlesome brother, does a fine job as Menenius, a sensible and sometimes humorous senator, and feisty Hadley Fraser shines as Aufidius, leader of the troublesome, ransacking Volscians. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (a hit in the Danish series, Borgen) plays Coriolanus's wife reduced mainly to a few prolonged kisses which pale in comparison to Findlay's affect on her wayward son.

At a time of civil unrest back home with graffiti ("Grain at our own price.") sprayed on the Donmar wall, Coriolanus simply can't be an Eisenhower type of military leader turned politician and play to the crowd in order to be a successful consul. Like Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who opposed Communism and its masses, ("in the crowd is untruth") Coriolanus distains both the crowd and the tribunes (councillors) who represent it.

Hiddleston is quite amazing in his valor, the kind of warrior you might send even ahead of the U.S. Marines, the quintessential warrior, and the contrast is remarkable in the scene near the end in which wife and son fail, but his mother, drawing tears from her son, finally prevails in beseeching him to spare Rome. Hiddleston reveals an astonishing aching sadness and a clear recognition that his sentimental decision will cost him his life.

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen. Photo by Johan Persson   Menenius, Mark Gatiss. Photo by Johan Persson   Tom Hiddleston and Aufidius, Hadley Fraser. Photo by Johan Persson   Tom Hiddleston. Photo by Johan Persson    Virgilia, Birgitte Hjort S&oslasj;rensen and Tom Hiddleston. Photo by Johan Persson   Volumnia ,Deborah Findlay. Photo by Johan Persson

The tickets cost $23 at Niagara Square for this production. In contrast, King Lear at Stratford with Colm Feore (who also played Coriolanus) will cost $64 for a comparable seat and $72 in London's National not counting gas or airfare. Yes, it's a deal, and Niagara should take advantage!

The National Theatre's website boasts a great array of wonderful videos featuring various components of stagecraft. These videos enrich both audiences and anyone who might speak in public. For example, talented voice coach, Jeannette Nelson, takes one through a terrific series that includes strategies for vocal warm-up through breathing techniques, resonance, opening the voice up, articulation, specific text work with consonants in Hamlet, vowels in Ophelia's speech, prose from "St Joan," blank verse from "Much Ado About Nothing" and then vocal exploration using different stage configurations such as the Cottesloe Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, and finally the Olivier Theatre.

There are more "Behind the Scenes" videos of interesting topics such as music in theatre, costumes, sets, rehearsal, etc. It's all great stuff and easily accessible!

Coriolanus (Tom Hiddleston). Photo by Johan Persson

Tom Hiddleston prepares for Coriolanus at Donmar Warehouse

Coriolanus - Official UK Trailer

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