Monday, March 3, 2014

Two Classic Texts, Modernized

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus (Photo by Johan Persson)

Like Timon of Athens, Shakespeare’s late Roman tragedy Coriolanus is getting more attention these days than it did for years, though, like their title characters, both plays are perhaps too unyielding to make it into anybody’s list of favorite Shakespeares. Ralph Fiennes made an intelligent attempt at filming it in 2011 with himself in the title role, the warrior who wins a major victory for Rome but whose patrician pride prevents him from winning the favor of the fickle (and easily manipulated) citizens; he winds up being exiled, turning his back on Rome and allying himself with the enemy he defeated. (The bankrupt Timon turns his back on Athens when his fair-weather friends won’t lift a finger to help him and goes to live in a cave.) In Josie Rourke’s economically staged production of Coriolanus for London’s Donmar Warehouse – recently transmitted on HD in the NT Live series – the protagonist is played by Tom Hiddleston, and his performance, which grows in depth and stature as the evening wears on, is the best reason to see the show. Toward the end of the second half Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay), who has come with his wife Virgilia (Brigitte Hjort Sørensen) and their little boy (Joe Willis) to beg him to reconsider his abandonment of Rome, makes a long speech to which Coriolanus listens without answering her or even moving from his spot. Findlay, whose performance is so hambone it verges on camp, wails and whines; after a while I stopped paying attention to her and focused entirely on Hiddleston, who conveys the influence of her pleas in the tension of his body and the way his face struggles to remain taut and unmoved while his tears betray him. It’s a small but potent acting lesson in the effectiveness of stillness and understatement.

I enjoyed act two more than act one; it’s more controlled and there’s much less of the obstreperous citizens’ ensemble. The production contains far too much screaming (especially for a space as compact as the Donmar) and other forms of attention-grabbing for my taste. Rourke makes a number of crowd-pleasing choices that don’t feel organic to the play, like making the two tribunes (Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger) who whip up the Roman people against Coriolanus lovers and – this is a baffling one – having Aufidius (Hadley Fraser), the Volscian general the protagonist battles early in the play, kiss the protagonist on the mouth when Coriolanus offers his service in the second half. Some of the scenes between Coriolanus and his proud, possessive mother have the quality of a TV sitcom with a nagging mama. None of this does much for the play. On the other hand, Rourke’s liberal use of blood is effective: it makes the Roman love of battle into a sort of macho masochism that enhances the text rather than grafting disparate ideas onto it. When Coriolanus returns from battle with the Voscians, he’s covered in blood and shows no sign of feeling his injuries, but left alone, he stands under a shower, bare-chested, and writhes in pain as the water cleanses him. It’s traditional for victorious warriors in this (early) Roman era who are being considered for public office – Coriolanus is running for consul – to show their wounds to whoever asks; Coriolanus’s refusal to do so, which the citizens (encouraged by the two tribunes) interpret as arrogance, works against him politically. But the shower scene makes it clear that, however much he has offered his body on behalf of his city, Coriolanus views his relationship with his war wounds highly private. This is a very clever piece of conceptual staging. Not enough of the production is as well worked through.

Photo by Richard Termine

House/Divided, a production by the Ohio troupe The Builders Association that visited Boston briefly in the Arts Emerson series, juxtaposes a dramatization of the post-2008 foreclosure crisis with sections from The Grapes of Wrath. Director Marianne Weems has mounted a technically impressive and visually striking show in which Austin Switser’s video projections play against a wooden frame designed by John Cleater and Neil Wilkinson, shifting continually between Steinbeck’s itinerant Okies, driven by circumstances to seek a meager existence in the California orchards, and a number of contemporary settings, mostly Wall Street. The layered look of the show is engaging for quite a while, but there’s no substitute for good writing and good acting, and House/Divided is short on both. The six-member ensemble reads Steinbeck’s faux-poetic prose without much vocal inflection, and the exchanges between the two complacent young stock brokers in the contemporary scenes are broad and amateurish – though it doesn’t help that the writers, James Gibbs and Moe Angelos, have reduced them to caricatures. (I don’t know how you’d dramatize the Wall Street of the last decade without demonizing it, but I am sure that isn’t the way to create good drama.) And though you can see why Gibbs and Angelos might have thought that linking the foreclosures to the fate of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath might be a compelling idea, in fact the two events don’t link up convincingly, since there’s no ecological element in 2008 to parallel the Dust Bowl drought.

I wouldn’t have thought much of House/Divided in any case, but the fact that I’d been watching the end of HBO’s four-season series Treme made me more impatient with it. Treme (which was created by David Simon) presents a cross-section of the populace and institutions of New Orleans in the immediate and longer-term aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, demonstrating how a natural disaster cross-pollinates with indifference on the national level, corruption on the local level and ineptitude on both levels to produce infuriating and disheartening results – and how a disparate collection of citizens, exasperated yet vibrant, withstands it all and succeeds in making new lives for themselves. Treme has had its faults: some of the plot lines grew tiresome and in season three especially the narrative often seemed to lurch from one to another. But on balance what the show achieved, week after another, was a remarkable complexity. It might serve as a good object lesson for the creators of House/Divided.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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