Last week I went to the theatre. In a cinema.
You have probably heard of the National Theatre’s, or more specifically soon-to-resign director Nick Hytner’s, initiative to spread the appreciation and accessibility of theatre nationally and also worldwide. The concept is so dreadfully simple – the broadcasting of the most popular and sought-after National Theatre plays on the big screen – that one wonders why after the live coronation of Queen Elizabeth II it took 56 years for this happen, until finally in 2009 theatre-viewing was begun to be made possible for the masses.
I have had the good fortune of seeing several National Theatre productions in the theatre however there are many for whom the limits of location, income and awareness mean that they do not have this opportunity. There are also the great many people who simply don’t manage to buy their tickets in time, which is where I was stuck with ‘Coriolanus’, unsurprisingly seeing as Tom Hiddleston, who has recently come to the limelight for his portrayal of Marvel villain Loki in the recent hollywood blockbusters ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Thor’, is in the lead role. The fanbase (or perhaps more accurately fangirl-base) he has thus acquired has seen people spending the night in sleeping bags outside the Donmar Warehouse (where the play has transferred to) in an attempt to buy day-release tickets.
Which leads to me buying, for the first time, a cinema ticket for a play. NT Live broadcasts are generally shown at smaller, independent cinemas which tend to have a more luxurious feel. I went to the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn and from start to finish I was thoroughly impressed. Before the play began we were treated to a five minute film; part Donmar Warehouse advertisement, part interview with Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss, who plays Menenius. He is a member of comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen and is now the co-creator and -writer and of the award-laden, plot-twist-saturated and universally-loved Sherlock, in which he also plays the high-functioning sociopath’s elder brother.
The design of this production is minimal but memorable. Quite far from the grand, Empirical Rome we like to imagine, ‘Coriolanus’ is in fact set before Rome established its hold on power, and this is reflected in the stark red and grey set which includes a ladder that can be seen to represent the ascent to the Capitoline hill, Coriolanus’ rise and subsequent fall from glory and the more general theme of an ever-present thirst for power. Once the play began I was immediately taken aback by the multiple camera angles and zoom-ups which are most often used in expensively-produced talent shows.
Needless to say, the performance was superb. The cast is a true showcase of British and, in the case of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Virgilia), foreign talent and together they make for an effortless absorption of one of the bard’s lesser-known plays. As director Josie Rourke said in her interval interview, ‘Coriolanus’ is by far Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent tragedy, with specific stage directions referring to the famous battle scene and the subsequent scars on Coriolanus’ body. The production has make-up effects to rival those of the films Hiddleston has been a part of, and as Rourke also says the casting of a handsome and muscular actor was integral to fully realise Shakespeare’s directions.
‘Coriolanus’ is not a text you will have studied at school, however it features a mother-son relationship as debatable as that of ‘Hamlet’ and a protagonist whose complexity will leave viewers with different levels of empathy depending on their own character. This is a direct result of Shakespeare’s genius; to be able pinpoint the unnerving truths of the human psyche so accurately that they stand the test of centuries. Having seen ‘Coriolanus’ I am truly surprised that it is not endlessly popular, as the points it has to make about politics and war are constantly relevant and a true testament to the phrase ‘history repeats itself’. I am ecstatic to be able to say that the experience of NT Live was so enjoyable, because in a best-case scenario this could be the beginning of a return to a heightened popularity of theatre and an increased interest from the younger generation who will ultimately be in charge of its continuation.