forgetting hot beverages and remembering them when they are cold beverages is a cruel reminder of the passage of time and how it can appear like nothing has changed but it has
but it has
oh my god thank u for this post i just remembered my tea
“Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe: And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to vnderstand him.” The sentiment has been parroted by exasperated generations of English teachers. The words themselves belong to two actors whose names are not well known, but to whom world culture owes a debt somewhat larger than, say, Greece does to the Bundesbank.
In 1623, the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s works was published by John Heminge and Henry Condell. Without them, there is no telling how many – or few – of Shakespeare’s plays would have survived for posterity, nor in what condition. The latest company to benefit from the foresight of Heminge and Condell is crowded round one of the most perfect of the many editions of the First Folio still in existence. Their faces will be familiar from other contexts: Loki from the Thor franchise, Kristine the TV journalist from Borgen and one of those blokes off The League of Gentlemen.
This is the Donmar Warehouse’s cast for its new production of Coriolanus, starring Tom Hiddleston as the warrior-politician, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as his wife Virgilia and Mark Gatiss as Menenaus. Also in the cast are Hadley Fraser as Aufidius and Deborah Findley as Coriolanus’s terrifying mother Volumnia. Here in the Chief Commoner’s Parlour, a mock Elizabethan room in the Old Library of the Guildhall in the City of London, the all but holy book is open at “Actus Primus. Scena Prima” of The Tragedie of Coriolanus. Hiddleston sits and reads from the tome as it rests on a small beanbag.
“Here he comes and in the gown of humility,” he intones, then pauses. “Wow, that is amazing.” He flicks a few pages then embarks on a speech of Caius Martius, as the titular general is known. “Oh me alone, make you a sword of me.” “Couple of notes in that, Tom,” pipes up someone. The whole cast laughs.
This outing is by way of a getting-to-know-you session organised by their director Josie Rourke. “It’s always handy at the beginning of rehearsal to have some form of cast trip,” she says, watching indulgently from the side like a school teacher with a group of years nines. “They’re enormously excited about it. It’s great to connect them with Shakespeare.”
The cast is here at the invitation of the City of London Corporation. Also ranged around a long wide table are various other editions of Shakespeare, a couple of quartos of Othello and Henry IV part 2, the much rarer Third Folio of 1664 incorporating extra titles (most copies were burned in the Great Fire two years later). Though all valuable, the priciest is the First Folio. An inferior copy recently went under the hammer for over $5 million. An original bound edition cost £1 (a wholesale copy cost 15 shillings). Many copies survive – the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC houses 79 – but only a few remain in mint condition. Five are deemed to be the best in the world. This, given to the City of London Corporation in 1918, is one of them.
It essentially reduces an entire cast to a chorus of oohs and aahs and exclamations and respectful whispers. Gradually they manage to conjure up a coherent reaction or two. “It puts the lie the all that nonsense about him not being who he was,” suggests Gatiss. “They obviously thought he was a very important man.” Findlay alights on the “extraordinary” fact “that this is the book which has allowed all these productions to happen”.
Hiddleston says: “You’re aware of the ancient quality of the language as you learn it and speak it, and yet you try and speak it for a contemporary ear. But then you see it literally when it was printed in 1623.” For Sørensen, who has dreamed of performing in Shakespeare’s original language ever since she played Hippolyta in Danish at school, “It’s like walking into history. I don’t mean to be sentimental about it but it is quite astonishing to be sitting in front of something that is that old and recognise the words and know that this is what we’re doing today.”
Before his death in 1616, the playwright had not seen any of his plays into print. Heminge and Condell undertook to do the job for posterity. “It had been a thing, we confesse, worthie to haue been wished, that the Author himself had liu’d to haue set forth, and ouerseen his owne writings.” So they said in their foreword, which also refers to “diuerse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of iniurious impostors”.
They gathered 36 plays from performing quarto editions, comparing texts and sometimes asking actors to remember their lines. Troilus and Cressida snuck in under the wire so late that it is not listed at the front. Pericles missed the cut altogether.
For its own working text the Donmar has created a braid from different editions, starting of course with the First Folio edition. “You can get Shakespeare plays in a tiny number of pages,” says Rourke (with Coriolanus it’s 30), “and you see these fat editions full of notes. It just reminds you that they had recently been done for the first time.”
Her own programming predilection seems to be for Shakespeare’s Rome. The Donmar staged Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar only a year ago. But for Rourke Coriolanus couldn’t wait.
“It’s a play about the bloody birth of democracy,” she says. “When is that not timely? But it feels particularly timely right now. It’s got an extraordinary performance history. It’s been both staged and closed down by fascist governments.” Her other reason for doing it was to rediscover the play with a younger male lead. Of notable actors in the role in recent decades, Ralph Fiennes was 38 and 49 on film, Ian McKellen 45. Hiddleston (as was Kenneth Branagh) is 32.
“I get excited about him as a very, very young angry man being written by an older playwright,” Hiddleston says. “It’s often played by people who’ve already played all the other big parts, and I feel like this is a young man’s part, and a tough one. It’s a play about this young star warrior who is unevolved.”
Hiddleston has had a remarkable rise since he played Roderigo in the Donmar’s Othelloin 2007. His Henry V for the BBC’s Hollow Crown season got him into martial mode, but this is the role he’s had his eye on for a while. “The play is a personal passion and I don’t think I could love it or respect it any more. When Martius says to the people in his second speech, ‘What would you have that like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you, the other makes you proud,’ you could be watching Newsnight .” “A really quality edition of Newsnight,” adds Rourke.
Coriolanus opens at the Donmar Warehouse on December 6. Tickets:0844 871 7624;donmarwarehouse.com