Coriolanus, dir. Josie Rourke. NTL broadcast seen on 08.05.2014 at Kino Silver Screen Łódź, Poland
Come for Hiddleston, stay for Shakespeare
Reviewed by Magdalena Popłońska and Katarzyna Bresler
Only a few years ago if we wanted to see a National Theatre Live broadcast in Poland, it would mean travelling more than 200 kilometres to a tiny arthouse cinema in Cracow. Now, however, NTL has become so popular that we do not even have to venture out of our city borders. Take Coriolanus, for example – it enjoyed tremendous popularity, so much so that it took three screenings to quench the audience’s thirst for Shakespeare, in Łódź only. And this is not even the cultural capital of the country, so just imagine what happened in the rest of Poland. Why has British theatre gained so much appeal in Central Europe?
A huge incentive to follow the NTL productions is the fact that the company knows how to advertise itself. They have demonstrated an uncanny ability to use current pop-cultural trends to boost the theatre’s appeal. Over the recent years, the National Theatre has enticed the audiences with the names such as Kenneth Branagh, Benedict Cumberbatch, Helen Mirren, or Dominic Cooper. And it is not only the National Theatre that tries to lure in the spectators in this way. For instance, Wyndham’s Theatre cast David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 2011 – a move which was obviously at least partially targeted at Doctor Who fanbase. Additionally, the play is available online as part of Digital Theatre project, which further contributed to the growing numbers of the international audience for this production. NTL got wind of the potential that lies in cleverly implementing the use of new media, albeit they did not focus on their online presence. Instead, they made a name for themselves by bringing theatre and cinema experience together, broadcasting their plays to 500 venues, 250 of them outside United Kingdom.
Let us come back to our starting point, that is the last majorly advertised NTL retransmission in Poland – Coriolanus, directed by Josie Rourke. There is no denying that a fair share of spectators came to the theatre drawn in by Tom Hiddleston’s name (thinking, perhaps, that they might see a rendition of Loki, a character the actor played in Thor and The Avengers), but actually both Hiddleston and strictly Shakespeare maniacs might have got out of Donmar Warehouse with a feeling that his performance was one of Coriolanus’ strongest points.
The word is ‘mildly’.
Coriolanus was never the most often put up Shakespearian play, but when it was performed, it usually took quite a big budget and a spacious stage. Both were found to be unnecessary, according to Josie Rourke. While the symbolism of a red rectangle painted on the stage may escape some (a ring could fit better, since it would evoke an image of an ancient arena, but it might have been impossible to draw on such a tiny stage), the economical use of space enforced by the circumstances affected the play in a creative way. Instead of showcasing the imperial grandness, the focus fell on personal drama and psychological sparring. The minimalistic use of props and choreography based on twirling, slamming and throwing chairs around also help highlight the stuffy atmosphere of the Donmar stage – even if, at times, they awake unfortunate connotations with a high-school performance. The scenography and costumes seem to be suspended between ancient Rome and hipster London, reflected most strikingly in the graffiti projected on the wall, combining Latin ANNONA PLEBIS with contemporary-looking English slogans.
Scarce scenography is reflected in the limited number of people involved in the play; the fact that even some of the actors are recycled is as much an imaginative gimmick as it is confusing. In turn, the main players, irreplaceable as they are, give performances ranging from brilliant to disappointing. Hiddleston, as it was already mentioned, improves his delivery of Shakespearean verse with each role. He is visibly more comfortable with Coriolanus than he was with the role of Henry V in The Hollow Crown (although still handled rather admirably). Quite surprisingly, it turns out that the second brightest star of the show is Menenius, played with
charming ease and subtlety by Mark Gatiss. A character that is often easily sidelined in favour of either Aufidius or Volumnia, thanks to the actor’s both comedic and dramatic talent, takes centre stage in Josie Rourke’s adaptation. However, the roles that usually counterpoint Coriolanus, that is Aufidius and Volumnia, this time do not live up to expectations. Generally speaking, to be interesting, Aufidius should differ from Caius Martius in some manner, but in this play he was just his second best (but playing up the homosexual angle of their relation, which was hinted at in the text), as portrayed by Hadley Fraser. And as far as Deborah Findlay’s role of Volumnia is concerned, she decided to go with a shouty interpretation. Needless to say, it was jarring and unnecessary, as if the only way to convey her strong character was to shout it out loud. The rest of the performances were mixed. Particularly Virgilia, portrayed by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, in an ill-conceived emulation of Volumnia played up the emotional side of her character – a baffling choice, considering the fact that she was put down by Shakespeare as ‘gracious silence’ (2.1.174).
Overall, it seems that Josie Rourke wanted to boil down the tragedy of Coriolanus to the relationship with his mother. The execution of that idea, however, was somehow lacking in consistency. Especially the lack of Volumnia’s final scene from the original text highlights the shift in her personality when compared with the staging. It resulted in diminishing Volumnia’s agency, in the end making her more of a doting mother than a ruthlessly ambitious player, ready to sacrifice her son as a means to an end. Perhaps the director handles comedy better than tragedy, as she succeeded in bringing out a surprising amount of humour in a play that is otherwise associated with a rather sombre tone.
NTL’s retransmissions of Coriolanus broadcast in Poland sold out, as it was the case of the other screenings that came in the previous months. The origins of this popularity are quite remarkable themselves. What makes them exceptional is a certain backwardness of how the NTL productions ended up being screened in Polish cinemas in the first place. It took a kind of a grass-root initiative to get it started: through individuals time and time again asking at cinema venues or bombarding them with e-mails about the upcoming NTL productions and their retransmissions in Europe. This is not an anecdote or an urban myth, we know for a fact that people were, collectively, so persistent as to make it happen. We know – we were one of those people. The fact that the viewers outwardly expressed eagerness to participate in this new form of theatre experience is a proof of a changing attitude as far as access to culture is concerned. Before, if we wanted to see Shakespeare on a London stage, we had to fly there and stay up all night in a queue outside of the theatre to get a daily ticket; but now, NTL offers a viable alternative.
But it probably would not have happened so soon if not for the NTL’s casting of the actors who are strongly connected to fandoms, this all-encompassing, geographically ubiquitous legion, a powerful source of support and free publicity. Tom Hiddleston is an ideal choice for Coriolanus here because not only does he have a backup of his devoted fans to ensure that the tickets for this quite obscure play would sell, but he is also Kenneth Branagh’s second coming, Laurence Olivier 2.0 (at least as prophesied by the Internet and British press), the walking and talking ad for Shakespeare. Coriolanus is the prime example of a play commanding interest by force of its actors’ recognisability among certain groups. Tom Hiddleston may be an artist with a solid body of works and an Internet darling, but we would hesitate to call him an internationally recognised star, the likes of Jude Law or James McAvoy. The same could be said for Mark Gatiss. And yet, as it turns out, it was largely due to their fans that the play enjoyed a mightily successful run and got retransmitted to, say, Poland. Sweetening one of Shakespeare’s most cheerless works with Loki and Mycroft Holmes is perhaps the most convincing answer to the puzzle that is its popularity, also outside of Great Britain. The outcome of these joined efforts is that for the first time in history the fact that you live thousands of kilometres from the venue where the play is held does not prevent you from participating in the experience and discussing the work with people all over the world. Forget about 3D – this is a real artistic and technological breakthrough.