Living Shakespeare: Disco burlesque, Voldemort and Tom Hiddleston

Photo on 2014-01-02 at 20.44
This is the face of good intentions and pure innocence.

I have good intentions. I really do.

The original plan was to spend 2014 reading the complete works of William Shakespeare.

As I saw it, I would be ensconced in my over-stuffed easy chair with a cup of tea, my dog asleep in my lap, and a nice-smelling candle flickering merrily on the side table. Dignified. Elegant. Intellectual.

I had no intentions of ending up at a burlesque disco, getting my pants scared off by Lord Voldemort, or getting pulled into the riptide of Tom Hiddleston’s fandom.

Hmmm. Perhaps I should step back for a moment and explain.

Years ago, I decided to read the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe, start-to-finish. It took seven months, and I developed wrist strain from holding up the ginormous book (this was in the days before Kindle, darling, when we were carving cuneiform into clay tablets), but I did it. Reading everything Poe had ever written was an amazing experience. I became intimate with the logic of his twisted imagination, I learned the pattern of his words, I grew fascinated at the questions he asked. Poe was much more than a founder of the modern horror genre. He was scientifically curious, historically thoughtful, and an astute assessor of human frailty.

Reading all of Poe was such an enriching experience, I decided to try it with Shakespeare. With a twist.

How attempting to read with Denny usually ends up.
How attempting to read with Denny usually ends up.

Reading Shakespeare was nice and all, but my tea kept going cold, Denny Basenji kept fidgeting and thwapping me to get my attention, and I kept losing my place. Plus, the smelly candle turned out to be a little overwhelmingly scented. It was then I realize…Shakespeare is not Poe.

Poe was meant to be read. Shakespeare was meant to be watched.

So, I amended my plan to not only include watching all the movies of Shakespeare I could find, but to seeking out live sources of Shakespeare in Boston. In a city with this many universities and colleges, there was bound to be some serious Shakespearing going down.

The Donkey Show

Hot-pants wearing disco fairies.
Hot-pants wearing disco fairies.

My first encounter happened accidentally (story of my life). My friend Carol and I went to something called “The Donkey Show” in Cambridge, right on the edge of Harvard Square. We knew it was a kind of retelling of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in an avant-garde theater setting. We had no clue.


It turned out to be a disco nightclub where the audience drinks and dances the night away, and all around you, the woodland romp portion of the play is happening. I’m talking polyester, butterfly pasties, feather boas, bell-bottoms, roller-derby Pucks and gender-bending burlesque.

I am definitely going back because it was completely awesome, but I felt woefully underdressed (or maybe overdressed, given that I was wearing clothes?) in just a tank top and jeans. I mean, I didn’t even have a single sequin or spot of glitter anywhere.

While Helena belting out “I will survive” might not be to the taste of purists, I’d like to think that Shakespeare would find his fancy tickl’d with wondrous fine feathers by such a cheeky, earthy interpretation of his play.

Voldemort Goes to War

Once my disco-hips had stopped being sore, I moved onto Coriolanus. I had seen the trailer for the movie back when it came out, but I’m about as good at making time to go to the movies as I am sitting still to watch tv. In other words, don’t ask me if I’ve seen that funny commercial. I haven’t.

However, over time, I had caught up on my Harry Potter and, of course, I’d seen the 2004 version of Phantom of the Opera. I was definitely intrigued by Joseph Fiennes and Gerard Butler squaring off.

I spent the entire movie fighting off a panic attack. On the one hand, you can’t help but get the creeps when you watch this modern interpretation of the story of a military man being manipulated into politics. It’s like Congress meets Orwell’s 1984 meets Haliburton meets General McArthur.

Watching this version of Coriolanus, I was struck by the relevance of the political themes to today. It was like watching a thinly-veiled critique of American politics, complete with dirty money, voting fraud, extremist ideologies and a public opinion that changes so fast you get whiplash. This Coriolanus was a big picture warning for society at large.

I was really blown away by Gerard Butler, to the point I forgot I was watching Gerard Butler (you know what I mean when you can’t shake the sense that you’re watching the actor watch himself/herself play a character). Aufidius reminds me of Hotspur (more on that in a moment), and Butler brought off the impatient passion, the hungry warrior, and the impetuous leader with a grittiness that was crushing.

Coriolanus himself, Joseph Fiennes, frankly scared the crap out of me. He made me feel like a helpless citizen (which, in point of fact, is what he thinks you are), caught in the merciless machinery of politics, economics and war. Fiennes’ performance was brutal, disdainful and downright psychotic at the end.

And maybe it was just me…but…I kind of hallucinated that his nose disappeared a couple of times. It was like I was looking at Voldemort, especially when he was spitting “Boy!” at the end at Aufidius. Maybe it was the two glasses of wine and the fact it was 1:00 a.m. Still, his nose kept disappearing on me during the movie, and I was watching Voldemort take over the world. Disappearing-nose-Voldemort-Coriolanus. If that doesn’t make you appreciate the power of Shakespeare and good movie-making, nothing will.

Tom Hiddleston does Coriolanus…and, like, 16 Million Episodes of the Henrys…and, oh my God, Tumblr

Once I had recovered from my nervous breakdown about Voldemort facing off with the Phantom of the Opera, I went to Google and looked up Coriolanus to see if there had been any other movies made of it, as part of the deal is watching all the versions I can find of each play.

Curtains and a proscenium.
Curtains and a proscenium.

I was thrilled to find out that the National Theatre in Great Britain was performing Coriolanus, and that there was going to be a live broadcast of it around the world, including here in Boston.

Even better, it was going to be at the Coolidge Theater, a quirky, awesome movie theater in the Coolidge Corner neighborhood. The Coolidge Theater still has a proscenium and red curtains.

I got tickets, though I was surprised that they had sold out the first performance on January 30, but whatever, I was cool with going Tuesday, February 4th. I decided to take my Mom, as she and I always have adventures together, and she was the one who taught me to love Shakespeare as a child. One of my earliest birthday gifts was the “Tales from Shakespeare” by Charles and Mary Lamb. I remember her reading them to me all the time. I knew she would enjoy this.

I’m curious about the production, so I once again turn to Google. Somehow, I end up on Tumblr, which is the ancestral seat of fandoms. In fact, fandoms on Tumblr remind me of Game of Thrones. It’s full of kingdoms, fiefdoms, shipping battles, hashtag wars, and gif-making wizards and witches.

Coriolanus on Tumblr means one thing and one thing only: Tom Hiddleston.

Tom Hiddleston with a goatee, without a goatee, in a suit, in a tux, in what appears to be the same t-shirt in 10,000 photos, captioned a million times with EHEHEHEHEH, smiling, scowling, and overall being adored.

I mentioned this to my Mom as an interesting factor, and she told me I was behind the times (and I have to admit, she knows more about Reddit than I ever will). Hadn’t I been over to Cele-bitchy and seen the whole Cumberbitch phenomenon? She explained just how witty, funny, brilliant, opinionated and wonderful those women are.

Determined to embrace every aspect of my Shakespeare adventure, I dove in to the world of Hiddlestoners. I found a ton of witty, funny, brilliant, opinionated and wonderful women who are his fans. My daughter-of-a-professor-of-abnormal-psychology side was morbidly intrigued by the sadder, more embarrassing and self-exposing fans and the dangerous lines between reality, fantasy, coping and crutches that they blurred. I won’t share that stuff here, because it’s sad, and people’s pain is to be respected, not ridiculed.

Anyway…where was I? Oh yes. So, I worked my way through the reviews of Coriolanus, and I also discovered that Tom Hiddleston is a Shakespeare go-to guy. Othello, Cymbeline, Henry IV, Henry V, Coriolanus. Apparently, if you need a guy for something Shakespeare, he’s it.

As I was whiling away the time to February 4th (that makes it sound like I have just so much free time, doesn’t it? Ha! or rather, EHEHEHEH), I started watching the Henriad. I have to confess, I was confused by the posters.

Stop looking at me like that.

The posters with the half-faces are confusing because I kept trying to put them in order and figure out the faces, and it was really starting to upset me.

Thankfully, the films themselves were so brilliant, I was able to move past my poster-rage. It wasn’t just Tom Hiddleston. It was Simon Russell Beale. It was Jeremy Irons. It was every single damn actor in those films. I had never seen Shakespeare presented so fluidly, so accessibly and so “everydayishly” (not a word, I know, but it needs to be a word).

And we are at the head of the line.

So, after getting through Richard, Henry, Hal, Harry, Henry…the great day of Coriolanus arrived. Mom and I got to the Coolidge Theatre with forty minutes to spare, hoping to pick up the tickets and get a quick snack or a drink.

We didn’t count on the line outside that had started for seating.

Every swear word went off in my head. Something like this: Goddamn-motherf*cking-pieceofsh*t-c*cksuckingf*cker

Forty minutes of standing in the cold later, we had seats. Forty minutes had given me, however, an amazing opportunity to study the audience demographics. The ratios were as follows:

  • 98:2 Female to (very uncomfortable) male
  • 85:15 Under age 40 to over age 40
  • 95:5 There for Tom Hiddleston to there for one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays
Me and Mom, thanking God for grown-up movie theaters.
Me and Mom, thanking God for grown-up movie theaters.

Luckily, one of the other reasons the Coolidge Theater is so awesome is because of its concessions stand. That’s right. Mom and I were able to split a big tub of popcorn and enjoy a couple glasses of sauvignon blanc. We were well-oiled and prepared to be appreciative when the curtain (literally) went up.

So, this Coriolanus was completely different than the Voldemort film one. Hiddleston’s young Coriolanus didn’t remind me so much of a military man martyred to politics, but rather, I saw him as one of the countless white-collar spreadsheet jockeys (my terms, copyright me) who are fighting their way up the corporate ladder.

In this Coriolanus, I saw a man in search of identity, definition, meaning and purpose, but it wasn’t heart-warming. It was chilling because he has no core identity, definition or purpose. Everything was dictated or given to him by his mother or society. He’s a shell to be filled with brine, pickling seawater and the tears of others.

This Coriolanus was to me a cautionary tale of the cost of striving after something that you don’t fully understand. He’s doing his job. He’s great at his job. He gets offered a promotion, and instinct tells him it’s a bad career move. Family and “work” pressure him into taking the new job. He bombs it, but instead of blaming himself and his poor judgment, he blames everyone around him and goes off to a rival firm. It’s only when he sees how many “employees” will “lose their jobs” as a result of his attempted hostile takeover that he suddenly realizes the the true price of success. In the end, Coriolanus’ “corporate life” is in shambles, and integrity comes too late to offer any hope of a more fulfilling future focused on the things that really matter.

Okay, so that’s my take on this production. It may not be the original intent of Shakespeare, but the beauty of art is that it is free and you are free to be given and take as you will.

Tom Hiddleston’s performance was fantastic, but honestly, what made the play amazing was everyone else in it along with him. Mark Gatiss and Deborah Findlay in particular had me spellbound. I loved the gritty urban feel – and having studied the history of Republican Rome, I can really imagine a rougher, tougher town like that. I really appreciated the easy diversity of the cast. The focus was so totally on the emotions and motivations of the character, that the diversity and gender swaps were completely unnoticeable, which is as it should be.

All in all, wine and popcorn included, this Coriolanus was a fun addition to my list of 2014 Shakespeare adventures.

Play On

So, what now?

Well, there is Shakespeare on the Common this summer on the Boston Common. I also saw the preview for the National Theatre’s broadcast of “King Lear” with Simon Russell Beale. That’s May 1 at the Coolidge Theater.

I’m going to have to scour the Boston calendar and see what else is out there. I’m also going to have to get creative…which, could mean trouble…or some really good cooking…or trouble…

Maybe if we get a good nor’easter, I can schedule a cozy storm-viewing of The Tempest.

I’m also thinking of some Shakespeare themed dinners with food that he mentions…or booze that he mentions…or both. Then, there’s the idea of the Shakespeare insult-a-thon which has limitless possibilities. Possibly finger puppets. Possibly a scavenger hunt.

Any ideas to share about how I should get some more Shakespeare into my life aside from reading and watching movies?