Coriolanus: Adventures in Aggressive Furniture Arranging

Back from Coriolanus. All I can think right now:

DRAMATIC MUSIC CUE! QUICK, REARRANGE THE FURNITURE.

Okay I’m sorry. I know. I KNOW. It’s a very serious play. And it is. There is a definite non-zero quantity of fake blood that gets used, to great effect. But goddammit people, I’m only human.

First off: these tickets were acquired by queueing at the box office in the pre-dawn depths of the morning. The tickets I got via Barclay’s Front Row are for two weeks hence, at which point Mike isn’t going to be with me. And Mike likes him some Shakespeare too, so he wanted to try to see the play while we were in the UK for Christmas. I wasn’t sure if it’d happen since I’d been getting a kind of scary impression about the queue. Well, just to add a data point, we walked over to the Donmar and got there around 6:50. We were something like 17th or 18th in line, and by the time we got in to the box office there were still a couple of returns seats available in each show for the day, and what sounded like a decent amount of standing room. The biggest problem was really that it was cold, so if you want to try to nab tickets and don’t mind standing in line for about three hours, you ought to be good to go. Just wear some wool socks and bring a book to read. (And if you go to the Cafe Nero nearby to get a tea to warm your hands, tell Bruno the adorable trainee barista I said hello.)

I’m feeling very scattered about the play in general for several reasons. I’m familiar with Coriolanus, but not as much as I am with, say, any of the Henries, so I spent half the time just keeping up and rolling around in the language like a dog in a nice grassy yard. And during intermission while I was waiting in the toilet queue someone who recognized me from the internet came up and said hi, and told me she likes my work and that just kind of filled me with so much squee I still haven’t recovered. GAH I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.

Anyway. Coriolanus. I’m still really thinking about the set design, the sound, the costumes, all that. For all I joke about the aggressive rearranging of the furniture, that was used to great effect throughout the play. I’m less sure about the bit at the beginning, where everyone was on stage, seated at the back. It was nice in that it let us put faces to characters–which is very helpful since the characters have unfamiliar names, and many start with the same letter (eg: Volumnia, Valeria, and Virgilia, whom I ultimately gave up on and just kept mental track of as Mom, Wife, and Their Ladyfriend) which is the sort of thing that normally makes editors scream at writers but Shakespeare can do whatever the fuck he wants; he’s dead, and he’s Shakespeare for god’s sake.

Some of the sound (particularly musical cues) I found kind of distracting in a bad way, and some of it was very interesting, like this staticky sound that I want to try to track when I get to see this play again at a later date because I have thoughts. But I actually liked the moments of complete silence scattered throughout the play best; they were used to incredible, often heart-wrenching effect.

The costumes took some getting used to, since it was this kind of funky mishmash of very modern looking stuff with added leather armor bits, but that’s the kind of thing I can roll with. I’m not sure if I’ll ever forgive Coriolanus for causing me to have the following conversation with Mike, however:
Mike: Okay, so Coriolanus’s wife. Just… what was with her shoes?
Me: …what do you mean?
Mike: Just, they looked like they wanted to have laces like boots, but they didn’t. Why is that?
Me: I don’t know, I guess they were designed that wa–wait a fucking minute, are you asking me about women‘s shoes? Oh for fuck’s sake.

And of course the chairs. They were basically 85% of the set, and for all that I’m giggling like an immature little shit about them now, when you’re in the moment and just riding along with the actors it’s excellent stuff. The chairs do a lot of actual furniture duty, but they also play walls, shields, objects waved in the air in celebration, etc. They got kicked and thrown around by the actors, and I can say with all conviction that I saw no stunt chairs being used. Hardest working furniture in London, hands down. That the chairs didn’t get a credit in the program book really makes the entire exercise a sham.

Okay Rachael stop being an asshole now

Mixed feelings on some of that or no, it was very visually interesting. And of course since it was the Donmar (god I love that theater), we were all practically sitting on the stage anyway so you could see everything.

I’m going to go on and on randomly about story and character a bit now, so… spoilers I guess? But come on, it’s not like we all don’t already know how the play ends. Or at least you know if you’ve read it, which I always recommend you do first when you’re going in for Shakespeare unless your bard-fu is strong. (And if it is that strong, you’ve probably already read it, eh?)

My two favorites out of the play were actually Volumnia (Coriolanus’s mom, played by Deborah Findlay) and Menenius (Coriolanus’s sort of substitute dad, played by Mark Gatiss). They both just killed it in every scene they were in, and Volumnia in particular was just stunning to watch as she manipulated her son back and forth. Menenius was just wonderful for the way he played so delicately with tone in a lot of his lines. Filled me with glee. And it was also interesting to just watch the dynamic for when either of them were pushing Coriolanus to do something, seeing when it worked and when it didn’t.

So of course, we can’t really go on much more without talking about the title character. Tom Hiddleston was wonderful, which at this point is just kind of like saying gosh the Pope is Catholic and bears probably like defecating in the woods. But what I appreciated here was the raw humanity he managed to put into a character who, if not played carefully, can end up just kind of being a giant asshole. And yes, Coriolanus is still a giant asshole, make no mistake, he’s written that way. But Hiddleston gave a sense that there was something beyond simple pride riding the man to his tragic ending.

With the set up at the end, where he can either keep with his current path and have his vengeance–and thus destroy the last people (and perhaps the only ones who ever did) care about him as a person–or put himself in a situation where it’s plain he knows he’s going to get killed for it by his allies, you get the full weight of that choice. It’s a sacrifice for which no one will thank him (or remember him), which just makes his death, where he’s hanging upside-down from a chain and bleeding out, that much more horrific.

Though listening to Volumnia, I think there could be an interesting argument about how much she actually cares about her son as a person at times, and perhaps that’s part of the problem. The family dynamic between Volumnia and Coriolanus is already interesting, and Deborah Findlay and Tom Hiddleston just added more depth to it.

The other thing I couldn’t help thinking about as I watched was the contrast between this and the other Shakespeare I’ve seen Mr. Hiddleston do–playing as Hal in Henry IV part 1, part 2, and Henry V. As Hal, there’s this distinct zero to hero character arc, and Coriolanus gets the exact opposite; he goes from being the hero and darling to basically meat on a hook.

Also, since I’ve heard the “shower scene” mentioned again and again to the point that I didn’t even know what to expect (porn star style hair-whipping? tear-away trousers?) I feel the need to say this: Anyone who got “ooh sexy wet man” as the take-home from that scene must have been watching a different fucking play than I was. (Mike adds: There is nothing sexy about watching someone wash blood out of their hair.) Watching Coriolanus lose his shit broke my heart–and successfully transformed him from just a prideful douchebag to a man in serious pain about to make some terrible life choices (and a prideful douchebag).

Ultimately: amazing play, amazing space, excellent cast, I can’t wait to see it again because there are some things I very much want to watch more closely. Very worth the box office queue.

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