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Arts and Culture

Of Tom Hiddleston, Shakespeare and politics

Hermie I. Malit - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The British are coming — again. A new seven-month campaign of GREAT activities to showcase everything Great Britain has to offer; from the very best in culture and the arts to business, was recently launched by the British Embassy Manila at Ayala Greenbelt. The welcome remarks of deputy head of mission Trevor Lewis, invited Filipinos to experience the greatness of the United Kingdom.

The GREAT campaign jump-starts with William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a production by the “National Theatre Live.” Tom Hiddleston, who is more popularly known as Loki in The Avengers and Marvel’s Thor movie franchise, leads the cast.  The 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Saturday showings were not surprisingly sold-out.

The embassy’s media release states, “Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s searing tragedy of political manipulation and revenge. When an old adversary threatens Rome, the city calls once more on her hero and defender: Coriolanus. But he has enemies at home, too. Famine threatens the city, the citizens’ hunger swells to an appetite for change, and on returning from the field Coriolanus must confront the march of realpolitik and the voice of an angry people.”

However, that simple synopsis didn’t prepare viewers for the breathtaking performance of Tom Hiddleston, according to a Shakespeare aficionado and a Hiddleston fan. His face reportedly transformed into a showcase of emotion in all its manifestations. In other words, Coriolanus could have been a cruder character in the hands of a lesser actor, but Hiddleston (as is his usual) brings out all the depth, subtleties, and facets that make Coriolanus a sympathetic character. The cast is already good with Shakespeare veterans Peter De Jersey and Deborah Findlay. But it is quite clear that Hiddleston is the star of the production. Though known for his blockbuster Hollywood movie roles, he is clearly at home with Shakespeare, being an enthusiast himself of the famous English playwright.

This is a very political Shakespeare piece wherein I noted many parallels relevant to present society. Coriolanus is an alpha male warrior coming from the upper/privileged class of Roman society. He has just defeated an annoying and bothersome enemy of Rome (also upper echelon in his kingdom) and is being groomed by the Senate to be its leader or consul. However, Coriolanus cannot get himself to suck up to the plebeians/ ordinary citizens/or the Roman “masa” as part of the process for being elected to the position. In his mind, Coriolanus deserves to be their leader for he has demonstrated in battle that he is without equal. The other Roman politicians or tribunes, who also come from the privileged class and wary of Coriolanus, don’t want him to weaken their power. They manipulate the crowds (concealing similar Coriolanus-type feelings of superiority) and make it appear that they are the true servants of the people.

This part reminded me of an earlier conversation with an expat regarding Philippine politics. The expat expressed the view that our current President (unlike others before him) is genuinely trying to reform our country, for the betterment of the majority. However, he believed that our wealthy class is also resisting this change because they want to keep it the way it’s always been — rich getting richer and the poor on their own. He remarked that our rich will undertake nominal gestures of “giving to the poor but only for show.” He adds that elections are made so costly that only the moneyed can win them.

I took it that the expat perceives our ruling political orders, whether administration or opposition, to be from the same sets of families/groups who also control the wealth of the country. If true, they may be likened to the tribunes in the play who portray themselves as public servants but in reality conceal their true intent in order to manipulate the public for their selfish ends. I think a great many Pinoys from all walks of life would also hold this opinion. 

In the play, all the Roman officials possess the elite mindset of Coriolanus, but it is only he who is true to himself and makes no bones about wanting to be the leader of Rome without having to get elected or chosen by the people. Sounds like dictatorial tendencies even if benevolent and without selfish motives.

In this play (through Coriolanus), Shakespeare shows human nature at its purest as well as its most destructive. There is never any completely good or bad side. It explores the inner conflict of being true to oneself — and at what price? It is full of action, intensity that doesn’t stop; it is immediate, the striking imagery stays in your head. And although it is bloody and physical, it doesn’t feel like that’s the most important aspect. You feel the pain more than see the blood. It is only secondary to the story, drama, and acting.

The tribunes manipulate the people to reject Coriolanus.  This all the more makes Coriolanus despise the people.  He escapes execution by getting exiled with the help of friends. But he joins up with his old long time enemy, Aufidius, to exact revenge on the city that has rejected him. He practically leads the enemy’s armies and is about to conquer Rome. He becomes their hero and becomes even more popular than Aufidius. This time the Roman people who rejected him now fear their fate — they say they didn’t really want to reject him and blame the tribunes. This somehow resonates that society and government can be fickle and that the political events of that era still happen. 

In its tragic end, Coriolanus’ mother, wife, and son are sent by Rome to prevail upon him and sue for peace. It is his mother who succeeds in her very emotional appeal to his heart. She convinces him that he can be the hero of both sides. He weeps as he gives in to her request. Coriolanus knows that his decision could very well endanger him.  Naturally, this angers Aufidius who, by now, has found good reason to rid himself of his enemy turned ally.  They angrily string him up legs first and slit his throat for the betrayal — effectively putting an end to the burning jealousy he had for his oldest adversary. When Coriolanus does the violent thing, he succeeds; and when he does the right thing, he dies violently. Stories don’t get any more tragic than this.

The performance offers the imagery of Coriolanus silhouetted after his fight alone as he walks into the light, head covered in blood, blue eyes piercing, voice shouting. And contrasts this in the end with Coriolanus’ tears flowing down his calm face, a muted voice and a final splattering of blood as his dead throat is split open. Such is the intensity in National Theatre Live’s production of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. What a performance!

I went to watch this amazing production, Coriolanus, to get a chance to see the high quality of British theater. Lights, staging and music are done not traditionally but are very fitting and effective in showing division or connection. It is not period specific thus, reinforces the timelessness of human behavior as seen in this play.

How, indeed, may the ruling elite feel more compassion for the masses? Can they at all transform their passions in order to initiate and sustain genuine action to uplift those who have been born with much less? As for the common folk, how may they strengthen their thinking that they may not be so easily swayed by political personalities who wish to take advantage of them?

These are questions that Shakespeare begs us to consider in this modern crisis-ridden world. 

* * *

For information about the GREAT campaign, visit the British Embassy Manila Facebook page and Twitter account (@ukinphilippines).

AUFIDIUS

AVENGERS AND MARVEL

CORIOLANUS

HIDDLESTON

NATIONAL THEATRE LIVE

SHAKESPEARE

TOM HIDDLESTON

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

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