Friday, January 31, 2014

We need to talk about Coriolanus

Or rather, I need to talk about it, since it’s all I can think of. Listen: Last night, I saw a National Theatre live broadcast of Coriolanus from the Donmar, with Tom Hiddleston in the title role and Mark Gatiss as Menenius; and I was undone, UNDONE, I tell you. I barely slept, and the experience is still crowding my head this morning, so I’m going to try and talk about it, intelligent prose be damned.

Updated: My wise friend Joseph has filled me in on some of the plot gaps I had, and it turns out that some of my assumptions were pretty damn...wrong. I've added some footnotes where I was particularly ignorant about something. Thank you, Joseph!

First, the disclaimers. 1. I’ve never read Coriolanus. I’d never even heard of it until Hiddles started tweeting about it. In hindsight, I *should* have read it before seeing it, because I think I missed about half of the dialogue. There were scenes where I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying, especially when they were shouting (English is not my first language, after all). It’s not just that I missed bits of the plot, I also missed most secondary character arcs. I couldn’t even tell you their names. So my “review”, if this turns out to be one, is going to be based on feelings and lasting images and a mountain of bias, because (and everyone who knows me, knows this):

2. I have a tremendous, relentless crush on Tom Hiddleston. When accused of cancelling a work dinner in favour of “pretending at being cultured” I did utter the words “I’m going for the man, not the play.” And I meant it. I mean, look at this man. Better yet, listen to him. He may not be your type, but I know I’m far from alone in thinking him one of the most beautiful men that walk the earth. His charm is devastating. His sincerity is deeply moving. His is the voice that launched a thousand butterflies. I think he’s a great actor, but everything I see also convinces me that he is a great person. It’s not just the looks that make this man. (Although that grin certainly helps.)

This just so you know that my interpretation of what happened on that stage is tainted both by the medium (no pause button and no subtitles) and by my abject love of the male lead.  I was more than a little worried that my inner teenager might overwhelm my outer adult, and I’d have to spend 2.5 hours trying not to faint. Sure as hell, when they showed a little introductory video, the TeenageSus played a variation of Ode to Joy  and I felt a bit woozy. (TeenageSus: Seriously, LOOK AT THIS MAN. Just look at him. - Shut up, me.)

Right. That’s that out of the way. The inner teenager is appeased. You still here? No? Can’t say I blame you.

And then the play began and I found myself on an emotional rollercoaster that had little to do with "just" fangirling and everything to with the slightly more grownup admiration of sheer craft. Watching Hiddleston work is breathtaking.  Nothing about Martius was as I’d expected – far from being the contemptuous, stuck-up arsehole I read and heard he was, Hiddleston furnishes him with such sincerity and such well-timed little doses of humility that Coriolanus is far from the dick I was led to believe him to be. Sure, he’s proud and arrogant. But he’s also honorable, unafraid, and entirely free of doubt (at least to start with). I will need to read the cliffs notes to understand why, exactly, those two tribunes decide to topple him, and why the population hates him so above all other figures of authority. [1] Personally, I thought Martius was a bit harsh, but not enough to want him dead. [2] (Again, I refer you to the fact that I haven’t read it. Maybe it’s all in the text, I don’t know.)

Anyway, so while there’s a plot to get rid of him, he’s off to fight the Volscians and his old nemesis, Aufidius. They get to the city wall and can’t breach it, and the Romans narrowly escape death, so off goes the hero Martius to conquer the city single-handedly.  (Or at least to open the gates.)  As you do. He returns drenched (DRENCHED) in blood, but victorious, and his soldiers celebrate him like a God…and Martius tells them to stop. Hiddleston shines here. His voice is hoarse. He looks beaten, knackered, but the determination in his eyes is still there. He’s standing on a chair, bleeding everywhere,  exhausted…and decidedly humble. He repeatedly asks Cominius to stop with the adulation, and only very reluctantly accepts the glory they are intent to foist on him, and then only because he’s goddamn tired and hurting and much in need of a bath. They give him the name Coriolanus and finally leave him in peace to clean his wounds. Which he does, by way of taking a shower ON STAGE. (I flailed, then. But I also winced, because that looked painful. And messy for the people in the front rows. Lucky them.)

[A word on the production here: I’ve never, ever seen a dirtier stage. First, they covered it in rubble from the city wall assault, topped with a mixture of water and red paint from the shower scene (TM). They actually had to sweep the stage clean before the next scene, and that operation was surprisingly well integrated into the proceedings. The Donmar has a rectangular stage, with the audience sitting on three sides. One wall, no curtain, no wings to speak of. A fantastic, challenging space. With a gutter around the stage, and now we know what that’s for. Later on, there were flower petals and torn paper and guts and blood and gore; it was FILTHY, and it was glorious. When one of characters walked across that stage, he squelched. It was brilliant. Amazing, what you can do with a minimalist production. The only furniture on stage were a ladder on some chairs, and it worked, it worked so incredibly well. What a production!]

But back to Hidd—Coriolanus. He comes home all bruised, with his arm in a sling, and his mother nearly detonates with pride, and his wife is just glad he’s home, and so is Menenius, and so is Coriolanus, it seems…something something and suddenly he’s  running for consul. I didn’t catch why. It was probably his mother, egging her soldier boy on, but I can’t be sure until I’ve read the thing. [3] (I will admit to being massively distracted by him kissing his wife just prior to that. It’s a pretty thankless role, is Virgilia’s, but not when you’re playing opposite Mr Hiddleston. Four times a night she gets to do that, and how I envy her. My friend Jo pointed out that one of those times features an extremely runny nose, upon which I declared that, runny nose or not, that’s Tom Hiddleston you’d be kissing. Snot be damned, say I.)

ANYWAY, so Coriolanus wins the Senate’s vote without even trying – Cominius does all the talking, because, and this I have googled because it was so powerful: “I had rather have my wounds to heal again/  Than hear say how I got them.” (Coriolanus, Act II, Scene II). Now, I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s humility right there. This man is not a dick. [4] Unfortunately, there’s some strange custom whereby aspiring consuls have to stand in the street, wearing a white robe (TeenageSus: A GLORIOUSLY BACKLIT WHITE ROBE YOU MEAN! - Shut up, me!] and collect the voices of the people. Coriolanus does NOT wanna, and here he does turn out to be a bit of an arse, in a Sherlockian kind of way: He doesn’t see why he should be begging people whom he perceives to be beneath him for anything, and it takes a lot of coaching from his mother and Menenius to enable him to stand there and be nice to people. (“Bid them wash their faces/ And keep their teeth clean”, he says.) What a dick. But a funny one, too - Hiddleston overacts the gracious smiles and nodding thanks, and it’s creepy and funny. And he gets those votes, so good on him.

But then, when he’s gone, those tribunes show up again and ask the people why they gave him their votes, and they subtly point out that he was mocking them, and once that occurs to the people, they are a bit angry. And then the tribunes tell Coriolanus that he doesn’t, in fact, have their voices and THEN, you guys, Coriolanus flies into a verbal rage that has Menenius first try to make him shut up and then facepalm repeatedly. It was glorious. Where Hiddleston takes all that energy from, I do not know, but the “For the mutable, rank-scented many” speech was a tremendous, breath-catching thing to behold. (I am coming to believe that  Tom Hiddleston can extend his outer shell by about 2 feet; he suddenly towered.)

Something he says in that long, often interrupted speech leads the tribunes to call him a traitor [5], and he is to be judged by the people in the market place. (Wtf, Shakespeare? The dude has given his all for Rome, and nobody stands up and smacks those tribunes about the head a few times? Not cool, Romans.)

Menenius alone tries to reconcile the two sides (“Consider this: he has been bred i' the wars/ Since he could draw a sword, and is ill school'd/ In bolted language”) but he doesn’t get anywhere. Coriolanus’s mother, too, tries to convince him to apologise, but he doesn’t quite get it, and when confronted with the tribunes and the people once again, he can’t hold back his anger. And so he’s banished from Rome. *cue tears* His leaving home was gut-wrenching. He's so angry with the city he almost forgets that this means leaving wife and child behind, and his mother’s devastated, and then Hiddleston almost, almost allows some emotion out, and just when you think he might actually break down and try to make things right, he reigns himself back in and is off. (If Howard Shore was scoring the play, this is the moment where Gandalf’s Lament would play.) On his way out of the city, he's pelted with tomatoes. (I forgot that earlier! Tomatoes on that stage, as well.)

This, my friends, was the first half. ONLY THE FIRST HALF. Unfamiliar with the play, we thought they must've forgotten about the interval, but no, all of this happened in just over an hour. I was already exhausted, and once again full of admiration for the actors, for whom the worst, in terms of emotional drain, was yet to come.

So, a banished Coriolanus seeks out his nemesis and asks to be either killed there and then or to join with him against Rome. This happens, followed by a kiss (Shakespeare: the original slash ficcer), and sure enough, they march on Rome. The news reaches the city; Cominius is dispatched to reason with Coriolanus but returns defeated and unsuccessful. Then Menenius tries, and the scene between those two friends is the most gut-wrenching thing I've ever seen. Menenius, on his knees, pleading with Coriolanus to make peace, to remember his friends and his family - and Coriolanus, stone-cold, dismissing his friend. It was the most painful, heartbreaking moment in the play, and Gatiss and Hiddleston deserve nothing but applause for the way they handle it. Menenius is in tears, but Coriolanus is the much more tragic figure - there's this flicker of hope Hiddleston gives us, before retreating entirely behind this wall he's built around himself.

So Rome sends in the cavalary: his mother, accompanied by his wife and child. And during Volumnia's speech, we reap the rewards of the broadcast vs the theatre audience: close-up reaction shots. Coriolanus stands there, facing away from his mother, who is beseeching him to make peace, and you can see how hard he's trying not to hear her, not to cave, but despite himself, slowly, gradually, his eyes water. And then the entire screen is just Tom Hiddleston's face, and he's crying without moving a single facial muscle, and that, dear reader, is when I lost my shit. I've been hoping all day for someone to post a picture of that moment, but I guess everyone was as spellbound as me, for nothing has surfaced so far. I have, however, found these. They don't do that scene justice. I now know what a loud silence is. It was like someone had put a soundproofing blanket over the entire audience, and all you could hear, when Volumnia wasn't talking, was the silent tears of a torn man.

Excuse me, I seem to have something in me eye.

Ahem. The rest, as they say, is history. Coriolanus is persuaded, makes peace, and Aufidius has him killed, the end.

A word on the most wonderful Mark Gatiss, whom I'd only ever seen as Mycroft Holmes – detached, cynical, clinical. His Menenius - shrewd, funny, loyal to the end - was a goddamn delight. Every time he spoke, I smiled. Until I cried. It was a tremendous pleasure watching you at work, Mr Gatiss, and I thank thee.

I want to talk about the rest of the company, but I can't. It was too much, all at once. 

So there. That's the end of all my words. I was going to talk about the strange disconnect I felt between the Donmar audience and us in the Watford Palace Theatre, and the way our seats were so far to the right of the screen, I still hurt everywhere, and how the close-ups were annoying at times but so utterly, utterly rewarding at others...But my hands hurt, and my heart still bleeds a little, and I'm about to get very drunk, so I'll shut up.

Updated:
[1]: Joseph says: "Martius despises the lower classes; he's withholding grain from ordinary citizens during a famine because he thinks they're not worthy of it." I missed that. What an asshole!
[2] Yeah, no. Now I can, actually.
[3] Confirmed. It was his mom. What a horrible woman.
[4] Actually, maybe he is. Joseph suggests: "That may not be humility. It's customary for candidates to display their wounds, and he considers it beneath him to do so." He has a point!
[5] Ah, he's against democracy, that's why. FAIR ENOUGH.

Friday, November 15, 2013

I'll be over here...

The first time I ran away from Neil Gaiman was in 2008. We were at EasterCon. My friend Jana had flown in for the weekend and I was so excited. It was only my second convention; the first had been DiscCon in 2004, where I tried to run away from Terry Pratchett but was prevented from doing so by my friend Breej, who somehow persuaded him to sign my tattoo, prompting Terry to comment that I was "sweating quite a bit" so the pen wasn't working. Never has my face been redder.

Anyway, here we were at EasterCon, and Neil was Guest of Honour. We saw him on a panel about [BLANK] and heard him talk about [BLANK] and it was so awesome just to be in the same room with the man, I don't remember a single thing he said or what the paenl was even about. In fact, I don't remember much about that day as a whole, but one moment stands out more clearly than anything else: We were hanging around in the lobby, deciding where to go next, when Neil Friggin Gaiman came walking along the corridor towards us, all by himself. My heart dropped like a rock. Here was the chance to say hi. *This* was the time I'd get to thank him for Sandman. NOW was the moment to walk up to him! Take a step! Take another step! -– But I couldn't do it. Jana was all encouragement and nudges, but my body decided to RETREAT! RETREAT! RUN LIKE THE WIND!! at the last moment. When my head had stopped spinning and I turned around again, Neil was taking a picture with another fan and then got politely dragged away by his handlers. I didn't see him again that weekend.

Hi. My name is Sus and I'm 38 years old, going on 14.

I just get so damn excited about stuff, you know? In itself, that isn't a bad thing. But it becomes excrutiatingly embarrassing when you catch yourself babbling at someone you admire, and then not remembering what on earth you said to them. Whenever I don't run away in time, I have to ask people afterwards what the hell I just said. Decidedly cringeworthy.

I've since run away from Neil on two other occasions. The second time was when he and Amanda were making a short film in Watford – goddamn WATFORD, of all places! – where I lived at the time, and, most recently, at W00tstock 5.0 in San Diego this year. (Which was epic, by the way. You should youtube the opening.)

I sometimes think I have an inner Rincewind. My feet start making running motions when I'm so much as in the same building as a person whose work I love. Witness the Sandman panel at SDCC this year, where I sat right in front of Neil and my feet didn't stop twitching for an hour. It's not just Neil, either, though the abject fear of accidentally covering someone in squee is strongest where he is concerned. I've run away from Jonathan Coulton and Wil Wheaton (which turns out to be impossible when you're on a boat in the middle of the ocean, so my saving throw has missed a few times). I've run away from Pat Rothfuss and Joe Abercrombie. I've run away from Tom Hiddleston. I've run away from John Scalzi and George R.R. Martin. I've run away from Cory Doctorow and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Beause it's for the better.

So now you know. Make fun of me all you like. I can laugh about this, and so should you. Doesn't change a thing. Just don't be alarmed the next time it looks like I'm having heart palpitations – I've probably just spotted Neil somewhere.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Coffee, because why ever not

On Twitter (where else?) the other day, a discussion sprang up that every coffee fiend in the world has had at least a dozen times: What's the perfect cuppa? Does it come from those little Italian coffee makers? Or from a French press? Or maybe even *gasp* from Starbucks? Everyone has their own favourite way of making mana from the gods, of course, and I'm not going to knock anybody's approach. (Except...look, I'm sorry, but if your favourite coffee is Starbucks? YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG. Unless you're drinking Pumpkin Spice Latte, which is heaven in a cup, and which, crucially, isn't coffee.)

So anyway, I outlined my way (TM), which is pretty simple and requires no tools besides a kettle or a pot, ground coffee, a spoon and your favourite mug. It goes like this:

1. Put grounds in mug.
2. Add boiled (not boiling) water.
3. Wait for grounds to settle.
4. Enjoy.
5. Do not drink grounds!

Which raised the obvious question of: "But how does one achieve #5?" And I can see where that might appear to be difficult for someone who's never done this. But it's easy, and I'm here to tell you how, coffee nerds! In fact, I'm here to show you. It'll take a few more steps for me to explain the process. Follow along!

Step 1: Boil some water. You don't want to hit the coffee with the boiling water because it makes it more bitter. Leave it to sit for a couple minutes once it's boiled.

Step 2: Get your ground coffee. Smell that. It's the best smell in the world. I have a favourite I bring over from Germany. It looks like this:

I wish you could smell that.

3. Once your eyes have un-crossed, put that wonderful stuff in your mug:

I use two heaped teaspoons for a standard size
mug. You may want to experiment here.



4. Now add your just-boiled water.

The grounds foam up, just like in a French press.

5. Congratulations, you have achieved coffee! Now, once you're an advanced practitioner of this method, you skip this step. If you're not, you may want to give your coffee a gentle stir now. It helpes the ground settle more quickly.


6. Now this is a crucial step: LEAVE THAT COFFEE BE FOR 5 MINUTES. Trust me.

Because those? You do not want to drink.

7. After four to five minutes, blow away the foam from one side of the cup and enjoy the view.

HELLO THAR. BE MINE.

8. Note that there's not many floaty bits left. The grounds have to ground. BWAHAHAHA. Ahem. If you want to make sure, stick your spoon in and see what's what.

Good to go!

9. Consume.

Experience bliss.
Be transported to distant magical
places in your mind.
Your day is now awesome!

10. And here's the good news for those of you a bit nervy about the grounds: YOU CAN SEE THEM COMING. The trick is to peer into your cup as you drink, which gives you ample time to devise your exit strategy.

THEY'RE COMING STRAIGHT AT ME!

Foiled their plot yet again.
Now, granted, this takes some practice. You might end up throwing out more coffee than necessary because you don't dare to finish that cup with all that evil lurking at the bottom, just waiting for the moment you forget it's there and then to POUNCE IN BETWEEN YOUR TEETH. But, to quote my friend Robert:

When you can reach the java nirvana without confronting the grounds of despair, then you are ready.

So that's it! I only wrote this because I thought maybe you'd like to try this? If you do, let me know what you think! Or maybe you're German, in which case, hallo! Did I explain that right? :)