Are you a theatregoer with limited means, wanting to see live theatre from London’s West End but cannot find the means to fly to the UK or access performances sold-out within minutes of their release to the public?  If yes, I hope you know about The National Theatre’s live telecasts worldwide.

NTLive is the National Theatre’s groundbreaking project to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas around the world.  Though each live broadcast is filmed in front of a live audience in the theatre, cameras are carefully positioned throughout the auditorium to ensure that cinema audiences get the “best-seat-in-the-house” view of each production.  Satellite allows the productions to be broadcast live, without delay, to cinemas throughout the globe.  And rebroadcasts allow a subsequent experience in a theatrical setting.

OK, with that done, let me tell you about one of the most exciting productions I have EVER experienced.  Full disclosure up front:  I am not the biggest Shakespeare fan.  However,  a new production of the Bard’s Coriolanus by the  Donmar’s Artistic Director Josie Rourke is a must-see.  The staging is fresh, brash, modern, provocative, and completely mesmerizing.   Complement that with the most electrifying performance by any actor on the London stage in years (Tom Hiddleston plays the titular role) and one is assured a most-memorable theatrical experience indeed.

Coriolanus is not readily familiar to most folks from the Shakespeare canon.  I myself knew nothing about it.  However, from my singular experience with this production, I am bewildered as to why.  The play is sharp, witty, relevant to modern politics, and serves as an effective commentary on the differing functions of the human brain and human heart.  As a point of fact, it is interesting to note that T.S. Eliot considered Coriolanus as his favorite Shakespearean play, proclaiming it superior to Hamlet and calling it the Bard’s greatest tragic achievement.

Interestingly, Coriolanus also has the distinction of being among the few Shakespeare plays to be banned in modern times.  Specifially, it was briefly suppressed in France in the late 1930s because of its use of “fascist elements.”  As an American, I found the parallels between a politically-savvy few (popularly persuasive yet hallow and hell-bent on self-preservation) at odds with a sincere, yet politically unskilled, hero to reflect (somewhat) the ineffective, constantly-warring political climate of the US legislative and executive branches.  The political intrigues and resulting tragedy portrayed in Coriolanus is an accurate portrayal of the body politic, and Josie Rourke’s use of the gut and all-things guttural is spot-on.

Be warned, this production of Coriolanus is bloody.  Very bloody indeed.  And rightfully so.  Two scenes are standouts and are permanently etched in my memory.

In one post-battle scene, Coriolanus/Hiddleston  takes a shower on stage, gasping with pain as his war wounds turn the spraying water blood red.  In the final scene, Coriolanus/Hiddleston is strung up — feet-first — above the stage floor and is eviscerated before our very eyes.  I was so impressed with Hiddleston’s physical endurance.  Just how does he endure that bloody scene for so long with the stuff running down his face, into his mouth and nose and eyes?  Through it all, he completely and full commanded our undivided attention.  It was truly electrifying as I felt a chill throughout my body as the lights dimmed to close the show.  I simply cannot imagine Lawrence Olivier, or Ralph Richardson, or John Gielgud, or Paul Scofield — even in their youths — putting up with that.

In a nutshell, Tom Hiddleston is spectacular.  He is physically commanding, dramatically compelling, and emotionally piercing.  His transformation from the self-absorbed, emotionally crippled yet courageous warrior of the first act to a newly- awaken son/husband/father of the second act is remarkable.  Hiddleston’s show of tenderness and love in the second act shows us a man experiencing these overwhelming emotions as if for the very first time.   (And mind you, he does this in every single performance.)    Truly astonishing.   The cruel irony of the tragedy, of course, is the fact that Coriolanus also knows that in following the unfamiliar demands of his heart he is also signing his very own death warrant.

But, let me stop gushing.  This is an excellent production and not to be missed.  Check the website of National Theatre Live for details about US showings and for a cinema broadcast near you. You can also watch a clip by clicking here.

Armin’s Grade:  A+

Review by Armin Callo, Contributing Arts & Theatre Editor