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Arts and Culture

Tom Hiddleston in ‘Coriolanus’ kicks off ‘This is Great (Britain)’

CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau - The Philippine Star

Thanks to Tom Hiddleston’s scene-stealing performances in Thor and The Avengers, it’s easy to forget that Loki trained at Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Hiddleston’s strengths as a thespian, however, are on full display in Coriolanus, the Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare’s 15th-century tragedy. 

It’s not easy to get a ticket to Donmar, according to my sister Jenny Jamora, who took a summer program at RADA.  The West End theater (a banana-ripening warehouse once upon a time) is known for its out-of-the-box productions of Shakespeare and new British plays, and attracts talent like Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson.

When you have Tom Hiddleston playing the lead in Shakespeare, getting inside that theater is like scoring tickets to a U2 concert.  For us plebeians who aren’t that fast, savvy, or are located on the opposite side of the world, Britain’s “National Theatre Live” is a godsend.  The program films the best of British theater and brings it to cinemas around the world, and, luckily for us, the British Embassy Manila kicked off its “This is GREAT Britain” campaign with NTL’s film of Coriolanus, which ran from December 2013 to February 2014 at the Donmar. 

Hiddleston plays Caius Marcius, a multi-decorated Roman general who earns the name “Coriolanus” after a military victory in the city of Corioles over the Volscians, a neighboring tribe who were enemies of Rome for several hundred years.

In one memorable scene Marcius takes on Volscian commander Tullus Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) in a swordfight, emerging from battle so thoroughly coated in blood that he looks like — sorry to have to invoke so modern a reference but first thought, best thought — Carrie after they dumped that bucket of blood on her at the prom.

The wounded war hero comes home — not to accolades — but to civil unrest. The citizens of Rome are hungry and blame Coriolanus for their grain being taken away. While his close friend, a senator named Menenius (played by Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss), tries to calm the rioters, the proud general, completely unversed in the ways of the politician, incenses the plebeians further by deeming them unworthy of the grain since they didn’t render the kind of service he and his soldiers did.

In particular he arouses the ire of two tribunes named Brutus and Sicinius, who act much like the Pharisees did in condemning Jesus Christ to the cross. In the first half of the play Coriolanus does indeed come off as a Christ-like figure — noble but prone to a righteous anger that in the end becomes his downfall.

His mother Volumnia is no Virgin Mary, though. Full of fire and adoration for her son, she is prouder of his war wounds than his medals, declaring that blood “more becomes a man than gilt his trophy.”

The brave Coriolanus, in turn, is at heart a mama’s boy.  Exiled from Rome by the tribunes, he seeks asylum with his nemesis Aufidius, becoming an honorary Volscian about to beset Rome by leading his former enemies into battle.  Nothing can sway him, not even his surrogate father Menenius, but while a visit from his family — his young son and wife Virgilia, with whom he is tender — touches his heart, it is his mother’s pleas that ultimately change his mind.

Directed by Donmar Warehouse’s Josie Rourke, this is Shakespeare at its most modern and riveting. What could have been a three-hour play is tightened by a half hour, with a stripped-down set that uses ladders and walls to maximum effect. In a behind-the-scenes documentary short shown at the beginning of the movie, the set designer says that she, in fact, studied the way Romans painted their walls at the time, and was inspired by the Roman arena, which accounts for the red square Coriolanus’ son paints on the stage at the beginning of the play, in which most of the action takes place.

The costumes are equally well thought-out, minimal enough to be modern but designed in such a way that they evoke the period, like the intricately detailed leather vests Mr. Hiddleston wears over plain undershirts.

No one fills a leather vest quite like Tom Hiddleston, who, still in muscular Avengers form, is the perfect physical specimen to play Coriolanus. Once considered a lesser Shakespearean hero because he didn’t do as many monologues as, say, Hamlet, I’d wager that will change forever with Hiddleston’s portrayal (Ralph Fiennes also immortalized the character in the cinematic adaptation Coriolanus). With all due respect to the Bard, one of the most beautiful set pieces is wordless, and involves Hiddleston washing away the blood that covers him, from his own wounds and that of the men he’s slain. As water gushes down on him from above, a lone spotlight illuminates Coriolanus from the back as he shakes off the water, spraying it everywhere.  Seeing him engulfed in this visceral halo of red and white is like witnessing a rebirth — searing and unforgettable.

For the price of a movie ticket at a Greenbelt 3 cinema you get Donmar’s best seat in the house, from which you can view Hiddleston’s guns (hark, ye Loki diehards) and tears (heed, ye fans of Shakespeare) in equal measure.  I can’t wait for the upcoming activities the British Embassy has in store for us in its GREAT campaign.

* * *

The Philippine STAR is the media partner of the GREAT campaign. For more information about upcoming events, visit the British Embassy Manila Facebook page and Twitter account @ukinphilippines.

For information about National Theatre Live screenings, visit the Ayala Malls Cinemas Facebook page and Twitter account @mySureSeats.

AYALA MALLS CINEMAS FACEBOOK

BRITISH EMBASSY

CORIOLANUS

DONMAR

DONMAR WAREHOUSE

HIDDLESTON

NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE

TOM HIDDLESTON

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