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Experiencing British Theater in Manila instead of in London

12:15 am PHT

Act I: The London Non-Experience

One of my regrets during my trip to London was that I wasn’t able to experience British theater. As you may know, West End is the London counterpart of New York’s Broadway and there are usually around 40 productions ongoing at any given time. My not seeing any of them was not for lack of trying though.

When I was in London, I checked out the various theater guides and visited online review sites to decide what to see. I really wanted to watch The Book of Mormon, the award-winning satirical comedy musical from the creators of South Park, but their least expensive ticket was a whopping £37.50 (around 2,700 pesos)! In fact, the West End musicals were the most expensive with most having £20-tickets as their most affordable. So I settled with watching a regular play instead where the least expensive tickets cost around £10.

After checking out the reviews, I settled on The Crucible, a Tony Award–winning American play starring Richard Armitage, which you may know as the bloke who plays Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit film series, in the leading role. So I went on a Wednesday evening to The Old Vic theater near the Waterloo Station to catch the 7:30pm show. Naïve that I was, I expected to be able to buy a ticket at the venue but I ended up queuing instead for the ticket returns. Of course, nobody showed up to return bought tickets. It seems I underestimated the demand for British theater and I guess I should have reserved a ticket weeks in advance.

Act II: Coriolanus at Greenbelt

Surprisingly, I was able experience British theater here in Metro Manila instead. The British Embassy kicked off their GREAT (as in “Great Britain”) tourism campaign by screening a recorded performance of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a tragedy about the Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus, last September 5 and 6 at Greenbelt 3. Starring Tom Hiddleston, which you may know as the bloke who plays Loki in Marvel’s Thor and The Avengers films, in the titular role, the production was staged at the Donmar Warehouse theatre from late 2013 to early 2014. During the January 30 show, National Theatre Live broadcast the performance live to cinemas, theaters, and arts centers all over the world. It was the recording of that live broadcast that was screened at Greenbelt.

I’m not really familiar with Shakespeare’s works and Coriolanus is one of the lesser-known tragedies of the English playwright, but I was already familiar with the play having seen the 2011 film adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes, which you may know as the bloke who played Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. Fiennes portrayed the titular Roman general and also directed the movie, his first. The play’s political and fascist themes were wonderfully adapted to the modern-day world and the film is the best direct film adaptation of Shakespeare that I have ever seen.

Because I was already familiar with the material and I wanted to compare the film and the play, and because I wanted to see Tom Hiddleston do a serious role, I watched the 10:00pm screening of the play last September 6, the very last show.

My verdict? I love it!

The Donmar Warehouse, where the play was staged, is a small 251-seat theater in London that was originally a warehouse (hence the name) and provides an intimate viewing experience for the theater-goer. In lieu of elaborate Roman-era sets, the producers of the Coriolanus opted to go with a minimalist design using only a ladder, several chairs, a podium, painted squares on the floor, and projected graffiti art to provide the setting. The actors also wore Roman-inspired modern costumes and the production relied on electronic synthesized music during scene transitions. The modern-minimalist design served to highlight the acting and dialogue and it was quite effective.

Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of the unsympathetic Roman general was visceral and I consider his performance to be better than that of Ralph Fiennes’. I also have to give props to Deborah Findlay, who plays Voluminia, the proud mother of Coriolanus. She practically stole every scene she was in.

I was actually amused that the screening had a real 15-minute intermission between the 2 acts to allow the audience to exercise their legs and go to the comfort room. The screening was also enhanced with behind-the-scenes interviews of the cast and crew before the play started, and an interview with the director, Josie Rourke, prior to the second act.

Watching the play cost me 400 pesos and it lasted three hours but it was definitely time and money well-spent. I actually find the National Theatre Live’s concept of broadcasting British productions live to the world a great use of modern technology in promoting the arts. I hope that Coriolanus will just be the start here in the Philippines and that next time will be an actual live broadcast and not just a recording. After all, if I couldn’t experience British theater in the United Kingdom, seeing them here in Manila is the next best thing.  :)

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