Feb. 5, NYU Skirball opened its doors, leading people from the streets of New York City to the theatre of London for a screening of the stage play Corionlanus, Shakespeare’s most visceral work. Although the production was National Theatre’s (with Josie Rourke directing and starring Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss), this performance that they filmed took place in the Donmar Warehouse, where they used to store bananas. It’s a small performance space with far less seats than the National Theatre, creating a different sort of Rome than the arenas one may be used to, but that’s okay because Coriolanus is a different sort of Roman story.
The seats at the Skirball Center are three quarters full. Let’s blame the snow. The audience is made up of equal part NYU students earning credit for their theatre or English courses and senior citizens, but the little old ladies gossiping about Tom Hiddleston’s pretty boy looks in line for the bathroom at intermission are just as nerdy as the college kids. You could tell we had more fans of the cast in than fans of Shakespeare. Everywhere your ear turned, you heard, “He’s in Sherlock, which one is he?” and gasps at the sight of Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, and Christopher Eccleston in the opening previews for other National Theatre plays.
Women and men alike swooned over Tom Hiddleston, and fair enough, he was named sexiest man in the world by MTV, after all, but Coriolanus gives him the opportunity to really show his acting chops. Coriolanus waxes and wanes between being a cocky brat, mimicking the people in his city he disrespects, and a spit-screaming orator. Face covered in rather realistic blood in the opening battle scene, Hiddleston’s eyes are fire. This is helped by the camera’s ability to do close ups, which you might not otherwise get if you’d seen it at the National Theatre. It catches every jaw flex, eye twitch, and welling tear. The audience has a right giggle watching his complex expressions after his enemy gives him a smooch and confesses to having fantasies about him. Coriolanus is usually played by an older man, but having someone as young as this play him, you do not doubt for a moment that he is Rome’s best fighter and bravest man. It is the youth who are spry and feel immortal. At intermission, the general consensus of the hubbub is that Hiddleston has transcended his pretty boy appeal and is actually a fine actor indeed.
The big draw for me was Mark Gatiss, who’s written and acted in both Sherlock and Doctor Who. While Hiddleston struts about in a battle vest (and temporary translucent gown), Gatiss swooshes around in a long brown coat and scarf, making snotty little quips. He is Coriolanus’ friend, a “humorous patrician,” Menenius. Not a single joke slips by the audience, and perhaps they are just excited to see him, but they titter at every line, comedic or otherwise, or new facial expression.
However, the best acting has to be of Deborah Findlay, who plays Coriolanus’s mother. She is proud her son has returned from battle with so many scars, each one standing for another enemy life he took, though Coriolanus wishes nothing more than to hide the scars and never talk of them again. When he is banished for being disrespectful toward Roman citizens, she unleashes hellfire on the tribune, causing Brutus to shrink back into the corner. It takes real presence to play a character who is able to move the unshakable man to not take his revenge on Rome after he’s steeled himself against his friend, wife, and son. Ultimately, she is defeated by circumstances beyond her control. (If that’s spoilers, you’ve had the last 400 years to read the play!)
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