So, we saw the Tom Hiddleston Coriolanus last week, and I feel I was actually the wrong audience for the production. Apparently when my ticket ninja friend was sorting it all out, the usual response to “Do you want to see the Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus” was not “oh yes, I really love Coriolanus.”
Except I really am kind of seriously into Coriolanus. And I know this is weird. I’m just sort of fascinated, in general, by the lesser-known, Shakespeares because the concept of Shakespeare is so embedded in English culture it’s hard to get a sense of his works as … texts I suppose, in their own right. As opposed to just the weight of whatever it is Shakespeare means landing heavily on your shoulders. Maybe it’s just me but it’s hard to disentangle the big ones (usually the ones you did at school) from Shakespeareness. I mean, Romeo and Juliet isn’t actually a story about two goth kids who pointlessly suicide … it’s Shakespeare. So I find it easier, in the outliers, to get back to a story that’s being told. Even if the story is bizarre, like Timon of Athens: man overspends, gets cross when nobody will lend him money, dies in a hole, ranting about the crapness of humanity.
I don’t mean to be all Ahhh The Divine Genius Of The Almighty Bard (which I think is part of the Shakespeareness issue I mentioned above) but there is something … something inescapably compelling not about Shakespeare himself, but the interpretative scope of his work, I think. I mean people always go on about the Great Relevance of Shakespeare, and on an emotional level, I suspect that’s probably true (as a species we still fall in love and kill each other, after all) but I think it’s the combination of that closeness, with a deeper, wider sense of distance. Like there’s an extent to which a lot of the time you’re engaging with Shakespeare you’re trying to work out what the fuck it’s supposed to mean, not linguistically, but holistically. Like Timon – I mean, is he a noble, generous man torn apart by the petty greed of jackals? Or a complete wanker who has unreasonable expectations, and entirely deserves to die in a hole? So you have this astonishingly complicated and fascinating mixture of familiarity and incomprehensibility, and since what essentially performances of Shakespeare do is put forward an argument for comprehensibility (i.e. that this character was like this, or this thing meant that thing, and so and so was inherently noble, and such and such a tragic waste) … you can literally watch the same play endlessly and never get bored.
Well, you can if you’re me. I might just be weird. Although I’m kind of done with Hamlet because the Tenant/Stewart version nailed it so hard for me, I never want to see another production.
To, ahem, get even vaguely back on topic, Coriolanus is a real winner in terms of “wtf” and “oh yeah”. I have absolutely no idea what it’s trying to say, or what it means, but damn I love trying to figure it out.
So, the play is vaguely based on Plutarch’s account of the life of the Roman general Caius Marcius, and it’s set in that bit of Roman history I really don’t get, like the bit before when all the stuff we know about happens after the overthrow of Tarquin Wossname (Superbus), and Rome is a republic? Anyway, the plebs are pissed off because, well, basically this:
Essentially, the plot goes something like this:
Plebs: We’re hungry! We deserve to eat.
Marcius: No you don’t, you suck, because you’re poor.
Nice Senator: He doesn’t mean that.
Marcius: Yes I do.
Evil Polictian: Yes he does.
Senate: Oh, look the Volscians are coming.
Senate: And they’re led by Aufidius.
Marcius: Oh wow, Aufidius is so awesome, that if I wasn’t me, I’d be him.
Marcius’s mum: I’m so happy my son is probably going to die horribly in a bloody and pointless war. Because that’s what real men do.
Marcius’s wife: Sorry, I actually only have about three lines in this play and this isn’t one of them.
Marcius’s mum: I’ve been sending my son to war since he was sixteen. Otherwise he’d have grown up effeminate and sexually deviant, and I wouldn’t have loved him anymore.
Marcius: Aufidius and Marcius sitting in a tree…
Marcius: For fuck’s sake, you noobs!
Marcius: Fine, I’ll siege them on my own.
General: Well, he’s dead.
Aufidius: He’s so dreamy.
General: Wow, you’re kind of OP, dude.
Marcius: Well, yes, but blushlol.
General: Why don’t we give you all the spoils of war?
Marcius: Oh no, I couldn’t possibly.
General: Okay, well how about we call you CORIOLANUS in honour of the way you somehow managed to siege an entire city on your lonesome?
Marcius’s mum: My son is all covered in sexy wounds. I kind of wish I was his wife.
Marcius’s wife: God, my husband just nearly died. And I’m slightly worried about my mother-in-law.
Senate: Yay Coriolanus, you are the best person ever. Let’s make you consul!
Marcius: Cool. But, just for the record, I hate poor people and I think they suck.
Nice senator: Well, can you pretend you don’t for like five seconds?
Marcius: No. Real men hate poor people. My mother told me.
Evil but having a point senator: Dude, this guy would make a shitty consul.
Senate: Look, just pop on the robe of humility, show the plebs your wounds, and it’ll be fine…
Marcius: Wait, what? There’s no fucking way I’m doing that.
Marcius’s mother: Don the robe of humility, dear.
Marcius: Man, I hate this robe of humility.
Plebs: So, uh, why should we approve your appointment of consul? I mean, those of us who haven’t died of starvation recently?
Marcius: Well, uh, I guess I kinda killed a bunch of people for this city
Plebs: Good point, well made. All hail Coriolanus, our new consul!
Evil but having a point senator: But, guys, as well a having literally no political skills, he clearly holds you in absolute contempt.
Plebs: Good point, well made. Fuck Coriolanus and the Volscian he rode in on!
Marcius: Fucking poor people! I fucking hate you! You all suck!
Nice senator: Uh, you’ve kind of messed this up.
Marcius: I don’t care. Did I tell you how much I hate poor people, and think they suck?
Nice senator: Yes but…
Marcius: I wasn’t raised to be a pussy.
Marcius’s mother: Caius Marcius, go out there and say you’re sorry, right now.
Marcius: No fucking way!
Marcius: Then you’re a shitty son, and you have a small penis.
Marcius: I’m sorry everybody. When I said I hated poor people and thought they sucked, I was kidding.
Plebs: Screw you!
Nice senator: Hey, he said he was sorry.
Plebs: He’s a traitor! Banish him!
Marcius: How dare you banish me! I banish you!
Plebs: Go away! You’re banished.
Marcius: Fine. If you’re going to be like that, I’m leaving.
Senate: There’s no way this is going to come back and bite us in the arse.
Aufidius: The last time Marcius conquered me in single combat was soooooo hot.
Marcius: Guess who.
Marcius: The Romans threw me out.
Aufidius: That sucks, bro. I’ve just been sitting here dreaming about all the wounds we’ve inflicted on each other’s bodies.
Marcius: So either I can join up with you and we can sack Rome together, or you can penetrate me in the throatal region with your dagger. Either way, it’s a win.
Aufidius: I don’t think I want to penetrate your throat.
Marcius: Let’s do this thing.
Aufidius: On my wedding night, when I got to stick my dick in my virgin wife … this is totally better than that.
Volscians: Yay! We like Coriolanus best!
Aufidius: It’s so unfair. He’s totally leading the army when we were supposed to share, and I let him top me.
Romans: We are so fucked right now.
Senate: Send out Nice Senator, Marcius will listen to him.
Nice Senator: Marcius, don’t sack Rome, that’s just mean.
Marcius: Fuck you.
Nice Senator: Sadface
Marcius’s mother: Wtf son?
Marcius’s wife: Shit, I’ve got a line?
Marcius’s son: I’m just like … around.
Marcius’s mum: Look, I know I raised you to be a gay, machismo-obsessed killing machine with no compassion, generosity or empathy but … don’t you wuv me?
Marcius: Wah! Mother! Of course I love you, but I can’t reconcile my internal conflict.
Volscians: What do you mean, you’re cancelling the sacking?
Marcius: It’ll be fine. Rome will give you a bunch of stuff.
Aufidius: You totally betrayed me.
Marcius: Look, I’m sorry, okay?
Aufidius: And for the record, he took it up the arse, not me.
Marcius: That’s totally not true
Volscians: Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him! [ß actual line from the play]
Aufidius: Oh, now he is dead and I am sad.
So, yeah, it’s pretty odd really. But I do kind of dig it. I think I’ve seen four performances, and two films? And of them all, alas, Tom just wasn’t cutting it for me. I thought it was an interesting production, and something it did astonishingly well, actually, was articulate the random boatload of politicians, and give them what felt like recognisable identities. Also Mark Gatiss as Nice Senator was super nice. It was also pretty stripped back, I mean both the play itself, and the general staging. But I just didn’t quite get … much out of it. Argh. And it feels like everybody in the world and their dog is raving about, so I feel like … I must have missed something. But I guess it’s just one of those things, and sometimes things just got work for you. Also, there’s always this desperate need to somehow differentiate the Volscians from the Romans, and this normally involves silly accents for some reason. They were apparently from Yorkshire this time round. So Aufidius – who had a rather camp beard – sounded kind of weirdly like Ned Stark. And while I’ve made a bunch of jokes about the, err homoerotic under (or do I mean over) tones of Coriolanus, it’s way less fun if I have actual snogging happening. I’d much rather simmering and scar-caressing. And now it sounds like I’ve really though about this a lot. Which, honestly, no really, I haven’t, but I was it was just really odd to see Tom Hiddleston looking very serious and being groped by a camp Yorkshireman for no apparent reason. It felt almost like they were playing the whole militaristic soul-enemy thing for laughs, which is kind of sad.
For me, whatever the fuck Coriolanus is about, it’s also a play about peculiar surrogacies. I mean, again, I was sort of joking about it above, but people spend an awful lot of time kind of wishing themselves into other roles and other relationships – like Marcius half-wishing to be Aufidius, Aufidius and Marcius kind of wishing to be each other’s wives, Marcius’s mother wanting to be both Marcius himself and Marcius’s wife. And because there are very few personal relationships in the place, it’s all war and politics, it’s hard not to read these, in some way, as surrogates for the absence of the rest. War is highly sexualised, for example, and politics is often compared to wooing, and there’s weird juxtapositions of bodies, and actions, and … performance.
They’d taken the wounds and thing pretty literally – there’s a bit where a post-war Hiddleston showers on stage, sluicing fake blood tenderly over his shiny, heaving abs. And this … y’know … fine. But I just don’t think “people think Hiddleston is sexy” on its own his enough to sell a performance, or a play.
Except, y’know, it totally was. Because everyone else leapt to their feet to applaud, and I sat grumpily in my corner. Don’t get me wrong, it was good, and in places powerful, but it wasn’t standing ovation amazing.
Also, while I cannot deny Hiddleston is a charismatic fellow who moves well … it’s a rather polished, Eton-Cambridge man charisma, which I do not personally associate with … I suppose … my perception of what I imagine Shakespeare’s presentation of Caius Marcius could be. And I realise this is a slightly crap criticism because what I’m saying here is “didn’t fit my notion of how things should be” which is just about the worst criticism you can apply to any text, but it did mean I just wasn’t hugely engaged with the character, or Hiddleston’s portrayal. I mean, when he gives his speech about how all the poor people worthless measles, he just comes across as a slightly fervent Tory. What I did like, however, was his youth – there was this sense of a youngish man scrabbling for his place in the world about him, which gave an interesting of vulnerability to his absolutism, his suicidal political strategy, and his too-close, too-intense relationship with his mother.
He was also the most vulnerable Coriolanus I think I’ve seen, from the seriousness of the wounds bedecking Hiddleston’s much appreciated body, to slightly teary moments with his mother throughout. And weirdly I think this kind of diminished the impact of the final scene, where the apparently irreconcilable nature of honour and mercy, compassion, and masculinity, love and war, basically make him explode and die an onstage soul death, before Aufidius finishes him off in the next scene. I mean, for a play about a horrible person, who does horrible things, and essentially brings about his own downfall … it’s fucking tragic. And the sudden switch from broadly political to excruciatingly personal is like having a bone broken in the middle a theatre. The first time I saw it, it was such … an intense emotional shock – a moment of pure catharsis – to see this man, who has spent the entire play both embodying and enslaved to these rigid concepts of honour, pride and manhood suddenly fall to his knees, weeping… that I think I actually cried too. Pity and empathy, and a strange sense of relief. Before last year, I could actually count the number of occasional in my life I’d cried so … yeah … it was pretty big deal. But I think – and this isn’t necessarily a criticism – because Hiddleston’s Marcius is more human throughout, it feels like the end of a journey, rather than this moment of … savage, unbearable breaking.
So I was basically sitting there being all like whatevs.