Coriolanus. Donmar Warehouse. Live relay at the S J T Scarborough.

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Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus. Production photograph by Johan Persson.

Would you have me false to my nature? Rather say I play the man I am.

Tom Hiddleston, who plays Coriolanus in the production currently playing at the Dommar Warehouse, is a star. I could end this review there really as that is what matters most when you are watching a production of Coriolanus. You need great presence, athleticism and emotional truth. That is a lot to ask but it is one of Shakespeare’s great parts and one that is not as generally well known as it deserves to be. This is a military hero with quite an emotional range, not just a muscle man who can fight off all comers. He is a patrician, brought up with a sense of entitlement, who has been brought up to believe that he is special- and he is. His great flaw is his arrogance- he sees no reason why he has to prove his worth to those who are clearly lesser mortals- but when he returns home from war he finds that if he wants to capitalise on his military victories and gain power that is exactly what he is forced to do. He has to become a politician and schmooze those who have less ability and intelligence than he has. Surely he has done enough? He is self aware enough to know that he just doesn’t have it in him to do this, but there is no circumventing the system. The supreme soldier is a very different animal to the supreme politician and this single character flaw provides the motor for the plot, a very astute exploration of power politics which is as relevant today as it ever was.

The great strength of this production is the way that it explores the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia, perfectly played by a formidable Deborah Findlay. She is the cause of all his problems. Even the common citizens know that, one of them says scornfully early on that Coriolanus has done what he has done to “please his mother” and in the end she is his downfall. He can never be who he truly is. The truth of the man lies somewhere in between the two roles which he has been forced to play. This is brought out with great clarity by Tom Hiddleston and it is the biggest strength of his performance. It will be hard to find a more moving Coriolanus in the future. Behind the arrogance and swagger is a confused man who has lost his way after fighting for his country until he is at the end of his strength, just so that his mother can count his wounds and boast of them. His victories belong to her but he is the one who has paid the price.

Volumnia is the mother in law from hell for Coriolanus’ beautiful wife Virgilia. It is an underwritten part but thankfully it has found an actress, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, who does not always need lines to let us know how she is feeling and who can unleash considerable passion when it is needed. Mark Gatiss turns in a very stylish and well timed performance as Menenius, a patrician politician to his fingertips. I really liked little Joe Willis as Young Martius too, a chip off the old block who announces that he is going to hide away until he is bigger and then come out and fight. There isn’t a weak performance, big or small, but I have seen the relationship between Coriolanus and his rival Aufidius (played with great relish by Hadley Frazer) brought out more stongly. I think that this is a production decision and possibly an inevitable result of the very successful decision to make Volumnia so central. There are always gains and losses of this kind- it is one of the things that makes watching Shakespeare so fascinating.

The simple production design by Lucy Osborne, a small graffiti covered back wall half painted red, and a number of plain wooden chairs, suits the small space of the Domar very well, looking as if it has always been there and the direction is fast and well disciplined.

I was glad to have a chance to see this production by live relay as, understandably, the tickets sold out in the first day and I am a long way from London, but it did feel like second best. I love the Donmar and the atmosphere in there would have been electric. Even some of those watching second hand in a small coastal town in North Yorkshire were talking back to the screen.

Henry IV Part Two. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal. BBC image.

The second part of the BBC’s Henry IV is a real gem, building on everything that was established in the first part, developing the characters and allowing some powerful pay offs from the work that has been done in the early scenes, while also introducing new things to admire. If you are looking for any criticism I’m afraid that you are not going to find it here. Simon Russell Beale’s Falstaff shows new facets of a complex man. He is very moving indeed in the scene where he takes his leave of Doll Tearsheet (played quite beautifully by Maxine Peake) and also, at times, deeply dislikeable. I would have liked more humour, but this part is a difficult trick to pull off for an actor and perhaps you can’t have everything. There are two particularly delightful supporting performances, from David Bamber as Justice Shallow (one of my favourite minor Shakespearean characters) and Geoffrey Palmer as the Lord Chief Justice. The scene where Shallow is looking back with Falstaff at the “days that we have seen” made me ache for their past and what they have lost, and it was good to see Geoffrey Palmer fleshing out the bones of a deeply dislikable, pragmatic politician. One look spoke volumes. Lovely work. I am also going to give a cheer for young Billy Matthews as Falstaff’s page. A very truthful and mature performance.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff. BBC image.

But my goodness what about Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal! The scene where Hal tries on the crown, thinking that his father will never wake again, and then has to face his dying fathers rage at what he has done, talking him round and gaining his trust, was simply outstanding. It is great writing, one of Shakespeare’s finest scenes, and he just took it and ran with it. There is nowhere to hide when you are being filmed in close up and we saw every thought. When he made his great speech to his father we already knew that he meant every word because we had seen it in his face as he tried on the crown. He had managed to make Hal’s thoughts visible. There is no doubt in my mind now that Jeremy Irons also gives the greatest performance of his career. The two of them strike sparks off each other. At the end of the play, when Hal disowns Falstaff, we see the results of this epithany. It is an action without spite. He knows what he has to do, and he knows that it has to be done publicly. It is the Lord Chief Justice who finishes the job with brutal efficiency on behalf of his new master. Hal has taken on the heavy duty and responsibility of a monarch and while he admits to his brothers that his new role doesn’t suit him as well as it may appear to do there is no doubt that we now have a hero who will fulfill it and make England proud.

The settings are quite beautiful, richly textured and atmospheric, and the whole thing is beautifully shot with some wonderful close ups that lead us into the heart of the characters. Evocative of a timeless England and a whole society which is still recognisable to us today. Great directing from Richard Eyre.

There is nothing quite like watching a great production on stage, being there and breathing the same air as the actors, but I am deeply grateful that this Henry IV is on film and on record for all time. It really deserves to be………. and if the RSC cast Tom Hiddleston in anything in the future (something they should just get on with ASAP) nothing on earth will stop me buying a ticket.

Henry IV Part I. William Shakespeare. Part of the BBC series The Hollow Crown.

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Tom Hiddleston as Hal. BBC images.

The first time I saw Henry IV part one it was as part of the English Shakespeare Company’s complete history cycle during a remarkable week at the Theatre Royal Norwich back in the 1980’s. The week ended with a long standing ovation from an audience who had mostly been there all week, sitting in the same seats, and daffodils being thrown. I had never even read the play, although I knew a bit about it as a former English student, and I was pinned to my seat by a sequence of productions which is still what I think of as the finest experience that I have ever had inside a theatre. For the first week of my Easter holidays that year I lived for my trip to the theatre each evening. Those productions were brave, daring, innovative, controversial and absolutely true to the spirit of the plays and the Henrys, where the project started, were by far the best of them. They showed me my own England alongside that of Shakespeare’s, and I recognised it with both joy and pain. One day I shall write about that week in detail as my memories of it are still razor sharp around twenty five years later. Since then I have seen two more great stage productions, both from the RSC, and if I was forced to choose any single Shakespeare play as my favourite Henry IV part I would be it, along with part two. I am not alone in that. From their first performance they were instantly hugely popular with audiences who recognised themselves and their society in them. In particular they loved the quintessentially English character of Falstaff, flawed, charming, untrustworthy, wise and shameless, to distraction. The character of Prince Hal, his troubled relationship with his father, and his growth into a king of heroic stature is also a sure fire crowd pleaser and there is one humdinger of a sword fight at the end to allow the audience to cheer him on. What more could they, or we, want? It’s all there.

Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. BBC images.

The film of Henry IV part 1 which Richard Eyre has made as part of the BBC The Hollow Crown series is a fine piece of work. He has directed it with great flair, never allowing the pace to drop, ratcheting up the tension in the interior scenes, and bringing both the teeming life within the Boars Head and the claustrophobic court of Henry IV vividly to life. The battle scenes are beautifully shot in empty snow strewn winter fields and both close ups and internalised soliloquies are used to great effect. I particularly liked Falstaff’s speech about honour, heard in voice over as we watch him walk silently through the camp before battle. It is a very clear, well thought out reading of the play and there are some excellent performances, and no weak links. Ton Hiddleston is perfect as Hal, even allowing for the fact that Hal is a very easy character to fall in love with, dynamic, articulate and oozing presence. Right from the start there is no doubt at all that he is one day going to step up and become the hero that his father needs him to be but not now, and not yet. He is making hay while the sun shines. His purpose is absolute and he is aware of the cost there will one day be to him when he fulfills it. When his moment comes he recognises it immediately and it is thrilling to see him come together with his father and accept his destiny. We see both the man and the future king and that was as beguiling for Elizabethan audiences as it is today for those who read hello magazine, find pictures of William and Kate, and wonder about their home life. It’s real box office- always was and always will be. I was thrilled to see Jeremy Irons give a full hearted and honest performance as Henry IV. I don’t think I have ever seen him act so well, there was no relying on style or looks, just a complete understanding of the man he was playing, both as a father and as a king. Simon Russell Beale gives Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most difficult and complex characters, a good run for his money. He is everything that the part needs, while perhaps missing a little of the unlikely charm that leavens the character’s unsympathetic qualities, and his scenes in the Boars Head are very fine indeed. I really felt for Hotspur’s wife, a role in life which you certainly wouldn’t volunteer for. Joe Armstrong gives a pile driver of a performance. I’m not even sure whether that is a criticism or not, Hotspur is not exactly meant to be a shrinking violet, but I could have done with a bit of light and shade if it could possibly have been found. These central performances are given context by a wealth of detail from the actors playing the smaller roles. I liked Maxine Peake for instance as Doll Tearsheet and Michelle Dockery as Lady Percy. Two small, underwritten parts where the actor has to do a lot of work to make them live, especially important when there are few women characters in the play.
This film is a great achievement, especially as Shakespeare doesn’t naturally belong on film, and I am already excited about seeing the second part.