RETURN OF DRUNK THEATRE: Celebrities Do Gay Shakespeare! FEATURING David Tennant’s Richard II and Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus

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.

Richard II

(Photo: Alastair Muir)
Photo: Alastair Muir

 

Drinks

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.

Play

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.

Coriolanus

Photo by Johan Persson
Photo by Johan Persson

 

Drinks

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.

Play

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.

PLAY FIGHT!!

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.

23 thoughts on “RETURN OF DRUNK THEATRE: Celebrities Do Gay Shakespeare! FEATURING David Tennant’s Richard II and Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus

  1. Nancy N says:

    Oh, wow. Some day, I swear, I will hope to see theater like this! Maybe even tag along with you, although I am not a legendary toper (I fear I will be the elderstatesperson in the warm theater snuffling after having a wee bit too much Cotes de Rhone…)

    Thanks for a very very funny review. I really miss the UK theater and this is a nice breath of appreciation!

    Auntie Nan

    • Kerry says:

      Haha, I'm definitely not saying I've never fallen asleep at the theatre – I remember a particularly po-faced Doctor Faustus that did me a few years ago (well actually, I don't remember most of it!).

  2. So true! I saw Richard II slightly merry & Coriolanus stone cold sober but I agree entirely with your verdicts.

    And I really, REALLY want to see Hiddlestone play Hamlet, because I'd live to see what he'd do with it.

    • Kerry says:

      I'm sure it's coming within a few years if he wants to – I can't picture an artistic director saying no to a pretty sure review winner/cash cow like that! More selfishly I hope he keeps making good theatre and doesn't slope off onto a run of well-paying but terrible films, but it seems like the guy knows how to pick projects.

  3. Jenny says:

    Oh, I'm glad that Coriolanus was so awesome! I'm going to do that thing where you go and see it at the cinema at the end of January, and now I am looking forward to it EVEN MORE.

  4. Kerry says:

    I hope you enjoy it! I love the NT Live program – London theatre is great but it's not accessible to everybody (especially as both housing in the city and transport to it are getting more expensive), and I admire the way Hytner is trying to make theatre more accessible but still theatre-y.

  5. Cathryn says:

    I believe I was at that Faustus, and clearly remember our reaction when he stated (about two hours in) that he had "yet an hour"…yikes!

    One of the things I like about Coriolanus is its focus. But mostly, I want to say that you are TOTALLY correct about the Donmar bar.Great size, good staff, horrible selection.

    Also, Louisa please come hang out with me when you come to Portland???

    • Kerry says:

      Yes, you were! The production values as I remember were very high, but that's not quite enough, now, is it.

      We also had a really great staff member at the bar – in fact everyone at the Donmar has been super nice and friendly, which is even more admirable considering how bonkers sold-out the show is and how desperate people are for tickets.

      Louisa is an excellent theatre buddy and you are right to covet her.

  6. Molly says:

    Saw Coriolanus last night. You are right on EVERY count except I would add, maybe it was just all those super-tight jeans ingeniously incorporated into the costumes but I'm pretty sure there were ACTUAL boners. Also did Aufidius say he'd been fisting Hiddlescake in his dreams? I'm pretty sure he did. I saw Mojo at the Harold Pinter the night before and now I'm having to question why all the plays I choose end up with men hanging upside down from the ceiling on chains. It makes you look at yourself, it really does.

    • Kerry says:

      He did indeed! Well, he said they'd been "fisting each others' throats" which, as a friend pointed out a few years ago, probably wins some kind of Sounds Filthiest Is Technically Clean award. (That whole bit rockets Aufidius up to second place in Shakespeare's Gayest Character-off, trumped only by Emilia in Two Noble Kinsmen and her "Why don't I want to get married? Well, when I was a teenager I used to have a close girl friend and we would pluck each other flowers and put them between our blossoming breasts and make proud the bed and it's impossible that a woman and a man could ever love each other as much as she and I loved each other" speech. &EMILIA;)

  7. NB THEATRICAL INSTITUTIONS when I die horribly wealthy, all my bequests will be contingent on maintaining a properly stocked bar. Britvic, FFS.

    It's been more than a week and I am STILL thinking about Coriolanus. Crystal clear production of a play which is 80% interminable battles and people haranguing each other in the senate (the other 20% is, apparently, boners, although I never properly appreciated this when I saw it before. A good production will always elucidate the text in new ways!). Also, for all the blood and thunder it's a very personal tragedy for Martius himself, and he's the only one to die for his arrogance (give all take all those plebs dying of starvation and in battle but they obvs don't count). Good stuff.

    I liked R2 a bit more than you did, I think (it helped I saw it sober before Christmas), but then it is getting up there with the Henry IVs as my favourite histories. DT was pretty good, but I thought Michael Pennington and OFD were the biggest standouts. I'd still really like to see a R2 with a Bolingbroke who convinces as Charismatic Man of the People as well as Competent (or at least Less Incompetent Than Richard) Political Leader. He always leaves me wondering why the whole country is up in arms for him.

    • Kerry says:

      HI, RIGHT. I'm also still thinking about it WEEKS later. I mean, it definitely helps that it was cut quite a bit – I went back to look at it and was like "oh right, this is why I don't have a firm memory of the text, because EVERYONE TALKS FOR AGES".

      I think one of the reasons I like it so much in performance is that there is so much going on – it is Caius Martius' personal tragedy but it's not set in a void, the whole business of grain riots and the people's tribunes being a new representation, with the people never having a voice in the Senate before, and the whole question of what happens when you give the populace (group) a voice or two (singular). Like, it's not just a bunch of people yelling at each other about nonsense, it's properly interesting issues and then you throw in this one guy who is, in the great tragic condition, Kind Of A Jerk But Doing The Best He Can. (Did you know that in Victorian productions Volumnia was held up as an excellent mother, the backbone of any empire, doing her best to bring up ungrateful kids etc etc? VICTORIANS, MAN)

      I also would love to see that Bolingbroke. I desperately loved Rory Kinnear's King of Awkwardness but totally agree that really charismatic populist Bolingbrokes (as described by other characters but rarely seen onstage – maybe that's why?) have been v thin on the ground.

  8. How incredibly jealous am I! Your reviews make these two plays – that aren't my favorite of Shakespeare's, by any means – sound incredible, which I'm sure they were, personal favorites or not! One day I will see Shakespeare on the (real, aka not community theater lawn) stage, haha

    • Kerry says:

      Yeah, it can be hard to tell ahead of time but a really amazing production of a play that isn't my favourite is so much better than a medium production of one I like more. (Except the Henry VIs, I will take any kind of production of the Henry VIs…)

      I love community theatre Shakespeare, though it's nice to have the option of both, which we're very lucky to have in London. I haven't been to an outdoor theatre in ages…oh yeah, because it's winter, self. :P

  9. Jane says:

    This is the best review of all the reviews I've read of Coriolanus (and I've read all the reviews). I saw it a few days ago and was completely enthralled, to the point that I didn't blink enough during the last act and my contacts dried out so I came out with streaming eyes. I got patronising looks from many of the other theatre-goers and sympathetic smiles from the lovely Donmar staff. Mortifying.

    Two things occurred to me: you don't often get such a heroic Coriolanus, where even his shitty bits of behaviour are basically because he's trying to please someone else and hating what he has to do. It was a very Andy Murray version of him, I thought. And secondly, Virgilia was incredibly good considering she has about two lines – a masterclass in reacting from Birgitte.

    I knew how they staged the ending before I went in but the horror of Martius's struggles and the image of the spinning body have really stayed with me.

    More drunk theatre soon, please.

    • I agree with Jane. (I didn't know, before I saw it, how they would stage the ending – I deliberately avoided reviews before I saw it)

      More drunk theatre soon please.

    • Kerry says:

      I totally agree about the last act. Especially the final scene, where I know they cut quite a bit (I think there was some faffing around with the Volsces before they kill Coriolanus), which was absolutely the right choice. I'm still thinking about that moment when Aufidius turns around on him and he's just like "BUT I DID EVERYTHING EVERYONE TOLD ME TO DO :(".

      Also, I've never seen his choice to save Rome being played so clear-eyed before (not that I've seen dozens of Coriolanuses before, but you know what I mean!). That bit where he's quietly trying to communicate the consequences of his choice to Volumnia and she's just like "OK GOOD SEE YOU AT DINNER BYE" = MY HEART.

      "Andy Murray Coriolanus" = genius.

  10. Oh man. My work is doing an all-female production of Coriolanus like three days before the NTLive showing, and now I'm reeally contemplating going to see both. And after I'd decided to give it a miss! *shakes tiny fist*

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