Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Young Dragon: Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus

Thou boy of tears. Beautiful, beautiful tears.

Last weekend, the event I've waited for and annoyed my friends about since July arrived. I sat in a theater in Northern California and watched a recording of a play in London. The play was Shakespeare's Coriolanus directed by Josie Rourke at the Donmar Warehouse, and the titular role was played by Tom Hiddleston, which was why it was so exciting.

And nerve-wracking. When I first heard Olivier Award winner Hiddleston was in the play, I thought, "Oh, he'd be a great Aufidius." But he wasn't Aufidius. He was Caius Martius Coriolanus. This is a role usually played by "prime-of-life" actors in their forties or fifties, and Hiddleston is an exceptionally sprightly thirty-two. In the film version that came out two years ago (which got shafted in distribution but I enjoyed and reviewed here), Coriolanus was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, aka Voldemort.

This Martius is grown from man to adorable man with a teacup.

So wondering if Hiddleston could play Slaughterbot 3000 was my biggest worry. I also had an actual nightmare, while I was sleeping and everything, that I was watching the production and they had whittled down the women's roles to next to nothing, because I am no fun.

But while Hiddleston's youthful Coriolanus felt odd at first, it soon proved to be an intelligent choice. After his latest victory, Roman soldier Coriolanus is pushed by his mother, a family friend, and his general into politics, which he doesn't really want to do, and which immediately turns into the PR disaster from Hades. It's understandable that a younger man would succumb to this pressure, and it's easy to see why so many would bank on the hotshot ingenue. After seeing Hiddleston's Coriolanus, I kinda wanted to grab Fiennes's by the shoulders and shout, "You're a frickin' adult! A real one! Why didn't you just brush off suggestions of a career change you didn't want? Why are you throwing a temper tantrum in public? Why do you still have mommy issues?"

This doesn't mean I think the traditional middle-aged Coriolanus is now invalid. Just different psychologically. After all, Coriolanus was groomed for war since birth, had his first major victory at sixteen, and has had no other job since, not even working at Dairy Queen over the summer. Despite his tour of Roman Imperialism, his worldview is extremely limited. He's stunted, no matter his age.

But there's perhaps more hope for a young person to grow emotionally, and that adds to the poignancy of Rourke's production. Hiddleston's Coriolanus's bewilderment when he shows up at the home of arch-nemesis Aufidius and is greeted with open-armed joy is touching, as is his affection for and attraction to the sensible wife he hasn't quite figured out how to connect with.

She realizes butterfly torture is creepy; trust her!

Oh, and Rourke certainly did not cut down the women's roles. Brigitte Hjort Sorensen has poise and strength as the woman who finds herself wife to Slaughterbot 3000 and daughter-in-law to Rome's most blood-thirsty stage mom. Virgilia (the wife) and Volumnia (the mother, played by Deborah Findlay) are an interesting pair in the catalog of that most notoriously difficult of relationships: mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Virgilia is almost an interloper in Coriolanus and Volumnia's icky mother-son thing, but much like Ruth and Naomi in the Bible and Edmee and Madame Peloux in Colette's The Last of Cheri, the women become a powerful team once the guy is out of the picture.

The rest of the cast is stellar as well, but I particularly enjoyed Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger as the politicians working to undermine Coriolanus. Their characters move from nebbish academics to power couple in an authentic and fresh way.

There are still quite a number of encore performances coming up in February and March at theaters across the country via National Theatre Live. I highly recommend it, even if you're not (but especially if you are) a devoted Coriolanus booster like T.S. Eliot.

The Lark Theater in Larkspur, CA.