Last time I reviewed a play, one of the actors emailed me and asked me to go in for a chat. I doubt that will happen this time, as I emerged from Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse with slightly mixed feelings. I mean I enjoyed it but something didn't quite click for me, like it was Tilda Swinton behind glass. Full disclosure part 1: Coriolanus is not high up on my list of "Shakespeare Must Sees", which was formed when mum read Hamlet to me as a small child and I became obsessed with the names "Rosenkrantz" and "Guildenstern".
To me, Coriolanus always seemed a little like the preamble to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - you know, that long expository text at the beginning about intra-empire finance and tax law reform with regards to rebel alliance mortgages and capital gains tax rate cuts on planets beyond Tatooine boundaries or whatever, where you drift off and wonder when you'll get to see some light sabers and weigh the question of if they shut up about tax law, whether you could stand to watch five consecutive minutes of Jar Jar Binks. Anyway, Coriolanus, I suspected, would feel like that, rather than the sort of intricate plotting and timeless resonance which, to me anyway, is what makes Shakespeare great. However, after seeing the Donmar production of Coriolanus in London today, I think I might be wrong on this, and I think that perhaps the somewhat neglected Ralph Fiennes film version of 2011 possibly deserves a second glance for at least trying to give the themes of the play some modern context i.e. the war in Afghanistan and modern media's influence on politics. (I admit I have not seen the film due to my aforementioned fear of tax law, and am basing my opinions only on Mark Kermode's review and interview on BBC Radio Five Live.*)
Full disclosure part 2: I lined up in the cold for two hours to get tickets to this, and I got a pretty bad seat, although it was seat number 42 (significant to Douglas Adams fans) and I purchased it at 11:11 which is apparently the "angel's time" and you get to make a wish. Full disclosure part 3: I love Tom Hiddleston (who is in the title role of this production). To wit, my wish at 11:11 may or may not have involved being bound to him forever in marriage and/or servitude. (Seriously though, I think he is absolutely the best actor - with the possible exception of Mads Mikkelsen - on stage or screen right now. Including the small screen, even when he is reduced to bit parts in BBC dramas such as a Swedish policeman with dubiously bland fashion sense for any self-respecting Swede. I assume there is pretty much nothing Hiddleston can't do as an actor.)
I should have learnt, after accidentally seeing a preview screening of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, the perils of going into Shakespeare woefully unprepared. So my problem with this particular production, despite the unrelenting and distracting gasps of adoring Hiddleston fans around me (Australians to the left of me, Norwegians to the right...) was that, approaching it without much context, I wasn't sure whether Coriolanus the character was a Tony Blair, or a Rupert Murdoch, or a David Cameron, or in fact none of these as he actually had the courage to speak to his political conviction and openly mock his constituents without pretense. Or was he an old-fashioned soldier-turned-dictator out of step with his people's wishes? Or was he merely manipulated by his mother and (to a lesser extent) his wife? I felt like there could have been a lot of parallels drawn with various current events, from Murdoch to the NSA to the Arab Spring. Of course not everything has to be Baz Luhrmanised - I don't even particularly like Baz Luhrman, I would go so far as to say I hate Moulin Rouge - but I feel that Shakespeare himself was very much about writing for his time and any such allusion - however subtle - could have added an interesting edge, even without setting it in modern times as Ralph Fiennes did. The whole idea of "public image" though, in a Britain still smarting from the whole Murdoch affair, can't help but be relevant. Structurally it felt a little oddly paced, and while apparently the play has "inherent fifth act problems", I felt it didn't really grip me until after the intermission, despite the battle scenes.
Maybe, however, my discomfort is merely my extreme Shakespearean ignorance and the fatigue which had set in from standing in the cold for two hours, not to mention the red wine I'd consumed throughout the first act to celebrate being in civilised England with it's less-than-puritanical drinking laws (note: the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn is excused from my anti-American scorn on this front). The mother and daughter behind me in the toilet queue were discussing how perhaps Coriolanus embodied what the upper class really thought of the lower class, and perhaps the supposed people's representatives were simply whitewashing the truth to make it more palatable, like "the editors of the Daily Mail". Coriolanus refused to do this - whether through pride or conviction I'm not sure - and therefore was not accepted by the establishment. I thought that was an interesting interpretation. I thought it was more interesting than the comparisons to The Hunger Games which, annoyingly, references Coriolanus quite blatantly, and I hoped this was not why the Donmar had chosen to mount this production now, although it may explain a lot.
My second problem was that I felt a lot of the supporting roles were slightly miscast or at least strangely interpreted. Many of the supporting cast - whom I watched, hawklike, on the rare occasions I could drag my eyes from Hiddleston - lacked an "inner life" on stage and fell into that Shakespearean stageyness. I felt like they were merely "doing Shakespeare" and then letting Hiddleston carry the show in between set pieces. Perhaps again that is just me, since in my failed acting days I subscribed to the Stanislavski method, and maybe that does not work so well with something as iconic as Shakespeare. (I don't know. I didn't make it that far. Will have to ask Kenneth Branagh.)
Overall, I feel I may need to see this show a second time and from a better physical angle (a lot of the symbolism and emotion was probably not detectable from where I was).
But delightfully, upon getting home to Suzan's where I'm staying, her boyfriend Daniel remarked that we had a common interest.
"Check this out!" he said, consulting Wikipedia. "There is a diptych by Keith Coventry that depicts Coriolanus single-handedly storming an enemy fortress, while in the accompanying painting a single football hooligan, Harry "The Mad Dog" Trick, an avid Millwall Football Club supporter, attacks an opposing army of Chelsea fans! Now you get BOTH experiences!" (Daniel has bought me a Millwall FC ticket for Christmas - perhaps this is what the 11:11 and Number 42 were foreboding).
If that's not a perfect example of modernising Coriolanus, I don't know what is. Shakespeare would be proud of us.
*Hello to Jason Isaacs.
P.S. Yes I'm back in London for a while - and LOVING it. I miss everything from the Royal Mail to BBC Breakfast. More on that soon!