Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Popcorn Play

A week or so ago I had a totally new theatrical experience.  Constant Reader I hear your cry "But what can that be?"  Well, I have finally been to see a NT Live screening.  And what a strange experience it was.

NT Live has been running for nearly five years but I have put off seeing one as the previous broadcasts have either been productions I have seen previously onstage or wasn't interested.  But here we had an interesting cast - Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus, Deborah Findlay as Volumnia and Mark Gatiss as Menenius - in a play that I had wanted to see again after having seen Ralph Fiennes' film version in 2012.  I was curious as to how to classify this: film or theatre?  But I boiled it down to the question "Would I chomp popcorn during a play?" So, film it is.
The Brixton Ritzy was packed with an interesting mix of older punters with glasses of wine and younger, media-types with bottles of wine.  Can you see a connection?  You could see we were the first-timers as we had bottles of Pepsi-Max.  There was an odd, jittery atmosphere in the auditorium as the screen showed us the Donmar audience taking their seats interspersed with 'trailers' for upcoming screenings (Owen shut his eyes during KING LEAR as we are seeing it actually onstage this week) and an introduction from Emma Freud.

To be honest I'm not sure what I should be talking about: the screen experience or the stage production. As a screen experience, the first thing that struck me was how strange it was to be seeing what the theatre audience was experiencing but with none of the inherent atmosphere you get, especially in such a small auditorium as the Donmar.  It was also odd at the end to have the actors take their bows to rapturous applause while we sat gawping.  My friends Sharon and Eamonn were seeing it in a cinema in West London and, again, it was odd to text her in the interval to chat about the theatre production we were watching but be miles apart!
The actual production was interesting but by the middle of the second act I had started to weary of it's sameness.  Was it because I was not actually there that I felt that?  Maybe.  Tom Hiddleston certainly gave an excellent performance, charismatic and nicely shaded.  During the play you feel Shakespeare becoming more and more fascinated with his lead character to the detriment of others and to be honest there were some very dodgy supporting performances here.  There is a real dearth of good supporting performers these days but I enjoyed Elliot Levey's duplicitous politician Brutus, happily engineering Coriolanus' downfall with his cohort Sicinia.  Oh yes, Sicinius has been given a sex change and is played by Katherine Schlesinger for no real reason but to up the actress rate and for the two nasty senators to share a snog.  Schlesinger actually was good but it reared unhappy memories of the transgender casting in the National's EDWARD II.
Hiddleston was better matched by Mark Gatiss' Menenius and Deborah Findlay's Volumnia.  Gatiss gave a fine performance as the peace-making senator who runs out of excuses for Coriolanus' behaviour and is ultimately let down by his friend while Findlay was in excellent form as Caius' mother Volumnia. 

A woman who has channelled all her ambition into her son, Volumnia is the one person Coriolanus cannot refuse and constantly pushes him: to become a senator, to suck up to the crowd and with the Senators, but who also seals his fate when she convinces him to turn back from over-running his native city of Rome.  Frustratingly, this climactic scene came across as flat and one-note, again leaving me to wonder was that the fault of Josie Rourke's direction or for the fact that the tension was dissipated by not being in the same room as the actors.  It certainly didn't have the power or the subtlety of playing that Vanessa Redgrave brought to the role of Volumnia in Fiennes' film.  The role of Virgilia, Coriolanus' wife is one of the least interesting of Shakespeare's women especially as she is over-shadowed by the character of Volumnia, but I liked the weary sadness of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.
I'm not sure the NT Live thing is something I would do too often but it is an excellent initiative to make these theatre productions truly national events.

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