Seeing Coriolanus at the Michigan Theater was definitely a good decision. The acting was spectacular, of course. A cast of greats including Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss left the little Donmar Warehouse with queues of people camping out overnight to buy tickets to the show. The audience in the screening of this production probably mirrored the Donmar’s usual audience for the show: half an older crowd who enjoy Shakespeare, and the other half a crowd of young women who enjoy Tom Hiddleston (I would like to include myself in both of these categories). Hiddleston’s portrayal of Caius Martius Coriolanus left nothing to be desired as his acting ran the spectrum of emotions: a ruthless soldier who would like nothing more than to add one more man’s blood to his sword, to a son pleading for comfort and compassion from his mother. He carried the show, and wasn’t afraid to get dirty.
The Donmar is a great example of the kinds of theaters in which I prefer to see Shakespeare performed. It is a thrust stage (the audience sits on three sides), and a small space with limited seating. Shakespeare, to me, is best seen and understood in an intimate setting, and I believe this held true for Coriolanus. For most people the language takes a little getting used to, but this was achieved quickly with a close-up view of the actors. The smaller stage is also able to take more risks. The set was minimal: the concrete brick wall of the theater painted red and black and littered with graffiti, a ladder permanently fixed on the stage reaching higher than the audience could see, chairs for the actors to sit in while not in the scene, and a red square painted freshly on the stage floor during every performance.
Red was the color of the show. It first appears as it’s being painted on the stage, and next when Martius returns from slaughtering hoards of Rome’s enemies. He’s covered in blood to the point of excess in my eyes, and to the point that he can barely speak or see because so much fake blood has been poured on his head and is dripping in Tom Hiddleston’s eyes. Naturally, to get that blood off of him, water falls from the ceiling onto the stage in a stream steady enough to clean him up so that his face is visible.
This is the kind of risk a smaller theater can take that will pay off, and it is executed brilliantly. It has a strong impact, but also doesn’t require a big scene change to accomplish. Sure, the stage gets wet, but they can get some actors with squeegee-like mops to clean it off while another scene is taking place. The stage floor became a set piece in this production, constantly being redecorated with different red objects from flower petals to blood.
I was very unfamiliar with the story of the play upon arrival but the minimal set, the careful portrayals from the actors, and the close proximity of the action allowed me to come away from Coriolanus quite moved. It was an excellent production, and I’m glad that National Theatre Live was able to provide me and many others the opportunity to see it.