Louisa was in town this week, my longtime drinking-and-theatre buddy who initiated Drunk Theatre Week with me at the National’s Edward II. Clearly the only thing to do was continue with our theme of Gay Renaissance Theatre, so on Monday we saw David Tennant’s hair-extensioned Richard II at the Barbican (RSC) and on Wednesday Tom Hiddleston’s beefy topless-showering Coriolanus at the Donmar.
We necked two bottles of wine in the excellent Old Red Cow (splitting them, so I think you’ll find technically I only had half of two bottles, which is fine) before walking to the Barbican and thrusting tickets confidently towards the usher with slightly deranged four-times-our-recommended-unit smiles. Louisa has some kind of daily returns superpower, as you’ll see later, and managed to walk up and get a ticket five minutes before curtain – I’d bought mine months ago.
Richard II has never been my favourite history play, although I did swing sharply round on it after seeing an absolutely life-shiftingly fucking incredible Palestinian production at the Globe to Globe festival last year. Now there are parts I like very much indeed.
These include: the Yorks begging desperate rival boons from a bemused Henry IV (very funny!); Mowbray thinking Richard is going to back him up and instead getting tragically hammered; baby Hotspur; Bolingbroke being super awkward in everything he does, ever; and Richard’s performance of himself, camp and tragic, both oblivious and piercingly self-aware, like a gold-spangled Stephen-Fry-as-Oscar-Wilde. How Richard is, in fact, so over-the-top and imperious that his very personality pushes the limits of English monarchy, making people go “gosh, you know, isn’t that a bit…much?”
This production had flashes of that. The comedy Yorks were genuinely funny, headed up by Oliver Ford Davies and Marty Cruickshank, and Aumerle was hot and adequate. Tennant’s acting was very strong – excellent at the lists at Coventry and in the prison, and throughout he was the douchiest Richard I’ve seen in a while, which was great. BUT. I didn’t get that feeling of over-the-topness from him, or even from Bushy-Bagot-and-Green, Richard’s boyfriends favourites.
Basically both Drunk Me and Sober Me wanted the production to be a lot tackier. I know “I had a pre-conceived idea in my head and this art I experienced didn’t match it, therefore I hated it” is the least useful kind of criticism (if it can even be called that) ever, and it wasn’t that I hated it! It just didn’t spark. The first half of the play slipped into the old history play trap of Blokes With Place Names Shouting At Each Other and, I’m sorry, it was very warm in the Barbican. Someone near me was even nodding off, and I’m pretty sure they’d had less booze than I had (AMATEUR). So I don’t think it was just Drunk Me.
A flaw with Drunk Theatre is that when I’m smashed I prefer spangly productions over subtle ones, but even sober I’m pretty sure Richard II should be glitzier than this one was. I loved Drunk Edward II but Drunk Richard II wasn’t very exciting. Sorry Shakespeare, in this season’s battle of Deposed Gay Kings Marlowe takes it.
VERDICT: WOULD RECOMMEND SOBER, NOT DRUNK.
How gay was it?
Medium gay. Richard and Aumerle made out a bit, a sad poignant my-star-is-falling makeout rather than a sexy one. Bushy, Bagot and Green were smug in a fun way but not very gay (DISAPPOINTING). Bolingbroke was a bit dull (sorry) and not gay at all.
First, Louisa had got up at 4am to queue for standing tickets for both of us while I was at work, because I am blessed with excellent friends somehow, and it turned out the theatre had quite a few returns, so we ended up with proper seats (see what I mean, MAGIC). Before the show we had large G&T s at the Cross Keys, and when we got to the Donmar bar ordered four more. (Not all at once! Two were for the interval!) I was extremely disappointed to find the theatre serves Britvic tonic, a mixer that tastes like aspartame and student duvet; I expect that from a Wetherspoons but not the Donmar forgoodnessake.
GOSH this was good! I don’t rate Coriolanus highly when I think about it, but I always end up irresistibly drawn into productions. I think that means it’s a good play. Tom Hiddleston is also just an excellent actor – I first saw him at the Donmar six years ago in Othello, and I walked away going “who was that guy playing Cassio?! ” which is, shall we say, not the reaction Cassio usually inspires. (For the record, the usual response to Cassio is “Hmm, would I have sex with that guy? Sure, probably, I guess.”) He continued outstanding in Coriolanus, doing that thing where other people are onstage acting and being really good, and you’re going “ah, I love theatre, this is great!” and then he walks onstage and starts talking and you go OH, RIGHT, THAT, WOW.
Mark Gatiss was charmingly supercilious as Menenius and I always love productions that make pleb characters angry East London protesters, but my favourite interpretive choice was casting the two Tribunes, Brutus and Sicinia – genderswapped from Sicinius – as a sexy power couple who sat in the Capitol plotting and making out onstage and eating grapes. THEY WERE SUPER GREAT. (Brutus was played by Elliot Levey, another OH RIGHT THAT actor for me).
Volumnia (Deborah Findlay) was centred, firm and implacable, ie terribly scary, and with Birgitte Sørensen I finally figured out what the point of Virgilia is! I always want her to be doing something, but she sits around being sad her husband might be dead (understandable!) and then sad that her city might be destroyed (super understandable!). But finally, with this staging and her acting, I realised! Here is what Virgilia is doing in this play:
Being present onstage while Caius Martius is behaving inappropriately sexually towards his mother and/or military archnemesis.
Right? I mean, if all that mom-grabbing enemy-caressing went on in private, it would still be weird, but when Virgilia’s around it really makes the audience go “DUDE, DUDE, YOUR WIFE IS STANDING RIGHT THERE”. His nice normal empathetic kind-of-boring wife is basically just a giant arrow over Caius Martius’ head going THIS GUY IS MESSED UP. Very well and subtly staged in this production.
VERDICT: WOULD RECOMMEND DRUNK OR SOBER (but BYO Schweppes or Fevertree if you’re drinking in-house).
How gay was it?
REALLY SUPER DUPER GAY. Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius was Northern, fit (oh man, so fit) and, okay. Here’s what happens in the first act.
Caius Martius talks to his friends about how much he loves fighting Aufidius. Aufidius talks to his friends about how much he loves fighting Caius Martius.
They meet. They fight. It’s handsy and beefy and they start out using flashy feints and moves and eventually just roll around on the ground grabbing at each other. Caius Martius gets his hand around Aufidius’ throat, then straddles him and starts choking him. As Aufidius thrashes around for air under him, Caius Martius, very low, starts growling: “Oh yeah…oh yeah…”
I MEAN. I turned to Louisa and made a GOSH THAT WENT TO A BONER PLACE FAST face and she went SERIOUSLY BONERS HAPPENING ALL OVER THE STAGE HERE and then they got up and were all sweaty and in the second act Martius came to hang out at Aufidius’ and Aufidius slid his sword around Martius’ throat and they made out and looked at each other SO BONERRIFIC and went offstage to dinner with their arms around each other.
Why couldn’t they just have run off to Spain or somewhere and been gay boyfriends who like to punch each other before having bruising sex against a wall? IS THIS NOT THE GREAT TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS I THINK IT IS.
Coriolanus was tight and sharp and of course from five yards away (the Donmar is teeny) it sucked me in more than Richard II, which I saw from the upper balcony of the giant Barbican theatre. Neither play is a particular favourite of mine, but I keep coming back to Coriolanus: flashing back to its taut, dangerous moments and twists, thinking about the problems it presents and how it works through them. My memory of Richard II is a stately fog of pale gold and white; I liked it, but Coriolanus was superlative.