Last week marked the beginning of a new theatrical era as I attended an enticing performance organized by the National Theatre Live. National Theatre is a worldwide screening of the most famous stage adaptations of the Bard’s tragedies. As long as American theatre lovers are not allowed to watch the performances on-stage, they have been given a marvelous opportunity to experience the cultural catharsis real-time. In other words, the project went viral and was attended by a large number of young people who sat by my side.
The screening took place in California, and I was surprised to find out I was not alone in pursuing British culture. The theatre was very crowded, and as I entered the hall, another pleasant surprise occurred: we were informed of the two halls available. As a way off the trodden path, my choice of the play was not quite classical. It was William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”, a tragedy less known than “King Lear”, “Hamlet” or “Othello”, but no less enthralling.
Predicting the complexity of the Bard’s characters, I decided to become acquainted with the plot beforehand. “Coriolanus” takes place in the Republican Rome. Historically, it was a time of conquest when the republic tried to increase its influence over nearby territories. In the center of the play, there is a Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus, a brilliant soldier but a poor politician. He comes home after battle, with a bunch of scars and a bunch of enemies, only to become the city’s righteous head. He then accepts the burden of responsibility without realizing he has an enemy much worse in his beloved Rome.
As the setting featured an ancient republic, I thought of the extensive scenery and epic decorations. However, my initial reaction was that of a pure shock: little did I know of the modern British theatre! The play’s director Josie Rourke decided to use minimal decorations: a giant ladder, symbolizing a climb to power, a few chairs, and a graffiti-stained wall with slogans of the Roman plebs written in blood red. Remarkably, these innovations added to the ferocity of the play and demonstrated the nerve and tension of the shattered Rome.
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The first part of “Coriolanus” shows us the rise of Caius Marcius as the public and military hero. He is the firework of the story with the blazing power of Tom Hiddleston playing him, and the intelligence of a patrician (Taylor, 2013). Hiddleston is a show stealer, and his character is a man behind the myth. Coriolanus, on the one hand, is represented as a lion his enemies are proud to hunt (Shakespeare, 2006) and on the other, a dashing killing machine with too noble a name and too quick a temper. Caius Marcius is a vivid example of how menacing a man in power can be, especially if that man is a trained soldier and a merciless chief.
Coriolanus gets his name after conquering the city of Corioli and coming home, blood-soaked yet glorious in his own triumph. When his friends and fellow warriors start praising him on his deeds, he cuts them off without hesitation. He is a thunderous man, indeed, and even more thunderous a fighter, but he cannot stand false praise (Benedict, 2013). The conflict escalates when Caius has to apply for the consul’s position. His mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay), another flamboyant appearance on the Donmar theatre scene, tells him to go get some votes and earn respect, but Coriolanus, tall and proud, refuses to do so. He is groomed for greatness, and the meaningless pursue of “likes”, as modern bloggers would have put it, is something way out of his league.
Shining hero is initially happy with his victories on battlefield, but as the plot unravels, and tensions rise, something is definitely wrong. Hiddleston’s face is gradually marred with resent, as his character has to beg for the precious voices, literally kneeling in front of a hissing crowd. For instance, a scene in the first act where Coriolanus walks around the Roman streets and mockingly asks plebeians to vote for him, half-singing, half-saying “I want your voices, give me your voices” is almost grotesquely comic.
The second part of the performance left me speechless and heartbroken, but I managed to regain myself in order to learn what comes next. Towards the end of the play, Caius Marcius is officially crestfallen. He allies with the enemy to save the eternal city of Rome, but his plans never come to life as Volumnia, affected and histrionic (Lukowski, 2013), demands a total submission to her will. This is the moment when it becomes clear that Coriolanus does not belong to himself, as he is manipulated by people who are better strategists than him and even by his own mother. Only when Volumnia starts to seriously consider her son never coming back from war, her priorities change from forcing him into battle to being a caring mother. Unfortunately, this understanding comes too late as courageous Caius Marcius is captured by the enemies. However, talking about the main hero of the play as of a tragic figure is highly questionable, as his true motives remain unknown (Billington, 2013). Yet it is clear that victory is the only option for fighters like him.
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Overall, “Coriolanus” is a play devoted to a man ahead of his time, a man, who refuses to play by the rules and follow the crowd. Whether it is in the Republican Rome, Emperor’s Rome or modern America, there will always be the one opposing the system. My verdict is: brilliant, daring and gripping from start to finish. This is a kind of a play that could only be created by Shakespeare’s legendary genius. I was overwhelmed with emotions the instant I left the theatre, and I am still under impression. Every cultural experience should leave a room for thoughts and questions, as it is the proof of an event truly worth anyone’s time.
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