Theatre Review: Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse; Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

The hottest tickets in London town for the past few months have been for plays written by a man who has been dead for over four hundred years.

Of course it helps that most of these sold out, selling-on-eBay-for-£2000-a-pop shows feature handsome famous men taking on some of Shakespeare’s meatiest roles (although even David Tennant in his now ended run at the Barbican may have struggled to make soppy sap Richard II meaty). But whether it’s prose or pecs drawing the crowds and winning the critics, there’s no denying the pull of Will.

My weekend was bookended by two very different Shakespeare productions. The first was the much talked about Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse starring the much talked about Tom Hiddleston. Since beginning its run in December it’s has had some quarters in such a tizz that people have been prepared to spend a huge amounts of farthings for a ticket for this sold out run.

There’s not a lot I can add to the chorus of Coriolanus praise; it’s every bit as powerful, thrilling and exciting as the critics have said. It’s a physical, visceral, brutal production that also has moments of reflection and humour. It’s stark simplicity and the almost post-apocalyptic feel of the set and costumes reminded me of the Trafalgar Studios production of Macbeth last year, although Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is a far greater force than James McAvoy‘s rather lacklustre Scottish murderer.

Hiddleston could stand on stage in the humble smock he’s forced to wear after Caius’ one-man victory in Coriolis and still emit a room-captivating magnetism. But he doesn’t rest on his charismatic laurels, giving us a soldier who is far more than a sword brandishing brute. That said, he does angry very well; he’s so intimidating as a thoroughly pissed off newly-elected senator unable to engage in – or even injure the idea of – winning the hearts and minds of the dirty masses that he had me agreeing with him about this “us and them” business.

Although he does a damn good job of trying to steal it, this isn’t entirely Hiddleston’s show. Deborah Findlay is wonderfully, almost sinisterly, controlling as Caius’ overbearing, power lusty mother Volumnia who discovers the hard way that second hand heroism is great until your son gets kicked out of Rome. Shakespeare’s comedy characters are sometimes the least funny people in his plays, happily in Mark Gatiss’ Menenius Agrippa this is not the case. He manages to be languid and amusing, but also subtle and sensitive, avoiding caricature pitfalls. Hadley Fraser does a good job as Coriolanus’ nemesis Aufidius, playing up the lustiness of Shakespeare’s verse like a desperate man who knows he’s out of his depth (and league).

As Caius’ wife Virgilia, Borgen‘s Birgitte Hjort Sorensen has little to do but look sad, sew and stroke Coriolanus’ face when his mum isn’t looking, but not all of Shakespeare’s women are quite so one note. Over on the other side of the river at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Eileen Atkins delivered a much more sedate, but no less moving evening  bringing some of Shakespeare’s more vibrant female characters to life with a one woman performance as legendary actress Ellen Terry.

The new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is every bit as captivating and arresting as Atkins’ performance and the candle lit theatre was the perfect setting for this wonderful, if too brief, production that highlighted the awesomeness of some of Shakespeare’s female characters that are so often dismissed (including by myself) as insipid and weak.

The quiet courage, quick wit and intelligence of, amongst others, Juliet, Desdemona and Beatrice was brought to mesmorising life by Atkins, delivering an amalgamation of two of Terry’s lectures on Shakespeare’s women while weaving into them some of their greatest speeches as well as dropping tantalising details of Terry’s glamorous life as a Victorian stage actress.

Shakespeare’s famous speeches were so comfortable in Atkins’ mouth and she was such an engaging presence that it was a real wrench when she backed slowly off the small stage to Ophelia’s final speech “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night”.

But it’s always good to keep your audience wanting more; Shakespeare knew the secret so well that we’re still wanting more and more of him, lapping up his words four centuries since they were first written.

 by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Othello, The National Theatre, London

Rory Kinnear as Iago and Adrian Lester as Othello

Five hundred odd years since Shakespeare died, and we still can’t get enough of his plays. You can’t swing a plastic skull without hitting a Shakespeare production up and down this sceptred isle.  Maybe it’s the assurance that you know what you’re getting, you know you never have worry about the quality of the script with a Shakespeare play. Sure his plots can go a little awol, some of his storylines are a little dated, but the man knew how to put quill to parchment.

With every new production, it all hinges on the acting and, to a lesser – though still crucial – extent, the setting. The National Theatre’s much praised production of Othello moves the action to modern times, opening with Iago outside a Wetherspoons-a-like pub, moving to a stark cabinet boardroom as the big cheeses of Venice discuss the Turkish problem, before the action turns to Cyprus where Othello is heading up an operation in a modern day British army base. (Confusingly, I think we’re still meant to believe the soldiers are Italian, although there’s little of the Mediterranean about this lager swilling bunch, especially as they’re dressed as, erm, British soldiers).

The modern day setting mostly works well, ramping up the machismo and exposing the volatile life of a soldier on active – and so often, inactive – service. There are times when it jars slightly; awaiting the arrival of Othello in Cyprus, it sounded incongruous hearing squaddies talking of ‘tempests’. Then there’s the issue of a contemporary setting bringing into sharp relief some of Shakespeare’s 17th century absurdities; this production certainly highlights Othello’s irrational, ridiculous, overly-macho behaviour. Why, why, why doesn’t he just confront Desdemona, or take Cassio out for a pint to talk things over? Why does he believe everything his friend Iago tells him unquestioningly? Why do four people die because of a misplaced handkerchief?

But in the final horrible scene when Othello has killed his innocent wife in a jealous rage, he says, in answer to Lodovico “For nought I did in hate, but all in honour” it reminded me that there are still two women a week in this country killed by their partners and the perpetrators’ excuses are equally as flimsy, and certainly less articulate, as Othello’s. And with recent ‘honour killings’ making headlines, “an honourable murderer, if you will” is still enough of a reason to murder for some.

As is so often the case, the devil gets the best lines. Iago must be a joy to play for any actor, he’s so wonderfully two-faced, so slimy, so magnificient at lying. All his talk of honesty, and boy does he talk of it, and the whole time he’s bringing down Othello simply by planting a few choice words into the Moor’s head. I think he might be Shakespeare’s best (worst) villain, he’s pure evil (“motiveless malignity”), he’s a ye olde internet troll – bitter, jealous and racist – with better lines.  You do have to wonder how he gets away with it for so long, surely someone must see through him. But then, in this production at least, he does have the face of Rory Kinnear who looks like butter wouldn’t melt even in army fatigues and a suitably military strut.

Kinnear is an exceptional Iago, but all the acting is, as has been well documented, immense. Adrian Lester’s Othello is as muscular as his pecs, his acting – in deed the whole production – is so physical (the NT’s PT must have been very busy).  Fresh from playing nosy little reporter cub in Broadchurch, Jonathan Bailey is brilliant as goody-goody Cassio, who could, in the wrong hands, be a little sanctimonious. In Bailey’s he’s passionate enough to make good look, well, good. Desdemona isn’t the most three dimentional of characters, but Olivia Vinall highlights her vulnerability and youth; she’s heart wrenching in the final scene as Othello looms over her bed. I wanted someone in the front row to rescue her such was the force of her anguish.

Othello is a bum-numbingly long play, but even I, who gets restless watching a YouTube video, was spellbound for all three plus hours of Nicholas Hytner’s taunt, passionate and dramatic production.

Othello at the National Theatre runs until 5th October 2013. There are still tickets available here

by Suzanne Elliott