Coriolanus or Ego-Bloat Pricked
Coriolanus is the last and most neglected of Shakespeare’s tragedies. An indomitable general is poised on the brink of supreme state power. To win it, he must only play nice to the lower orders, which, however, he despises as rabble. Will the superhero of granite indulge in the necessary soft soap? He tries but can’t deny his stoney self.
Tragedy for Shakespeare originates in a character flaw and the weakness of Caius Martius Coriolanus is the impolitic one of insisting on truth to himself. What he indulges is his arrogance sauced with venom. He’s banished. Cutting all ties with his homeland he vows revenge and joins the enemy. It’s led by his longstanding personal adversary, Aufidius, whose antipathy mixes love with hate.
Their partnership is effective, Caius’ military prowess making the difference. The homeland is now under the cosh, begging its rejected son to hold off. A rock, he will not be moved. He resists the pleading of his beloved father figure. When his mother, wife, and son come to implore him, he at first holds firm, granite still, but then, tears flowing, yields to his mother’s prayers. He will make peace with honour.
The resentment of Aufidius has been growing since Caius began dominating their common enterprise. Hate now outweighs love. Caius challenged replies with his usual truculence and dies at the hands of the enemy he has served out of spite. It’s a story full of dramatic peaks, poetry, and biting turns of phrase. What have our times done with it?
Ralph Fiennes honed the role of Caius on stage in 2000 for London’s Almeida Theatre. He wanted to do more with it and planned a film. Finance was slow in coming but, producing and directing himself, the film was ready in 2011. It was, however, no longer entirely Shakespeare’s play. John Logan had done an adaptation and set it in the 21st Century, giving it the allure of an action movie. Whether this was to please the financiers or not, Fiennes had got behind the slimmed down and updated version of the play he had done on stage. He remained nonetheless a traditionally trained British actor with a respect for Shakespeare’s words. The film was the frequent two-headed monster of Shakespeare adaptations. A crowd of extras runs around shooting one another while in quieter intervals actors duel verbally in sixteenth-century poetry.
Fiennes did bring across the haunting figure he gave us on stage. He also maintained quality by having a veteran classical actor, Vanessa Redgrave, play Volumnia, his mother, and another, Brian Cox, his mentor, Menenius. Alas, they have to do their strutting in a war zone. We fear a siren will sound and they will quick-wrap their poetry and scurry off to a bomb shelter. The filming is done in Serbia and Montenegro where traces of the war of the 1990s are still visible. This would bring praise for authenticity if Fiennes was making a war film all noise and fury. But Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is a play about politics. Critic Michael Billington calls it “far and away Shakespeare’s most complex political play[…]”. By bringing warfare from the margins of the plot to stage centre, Fiennes/Logan distort the story with sweaty combat and a showy display of filmmakers’ technology. Fury there is in Coriolanus, but it comes from the violence of Caius’ character and the havoc it creates.
Moreover, to make the movie sleek and flashy enough for Multiplex tastes, the adapter’s scissors has left it skeletal. The extensive battle that opens the film may wake up the audience, but it crowds out the political framework that Shakespeare is setting up. What is extraordinary about the play is that it refuses to take sides in a class struggle between the top and the bottom of the social order. Shakespeare is not often so bent on neutrality. The history of Coriolanus in the theatre is full of ideologues trying to steer the play their way. At the Comédie Française in 1934, Monarchists interrupted the play with their applause when Caius Martius Coriolanus cursed out the Sans-Culottes. In the same years in the USSR, Moscow’s Maly Theatre claimed its production exposed a national hero who sold the people out. In 1964, the adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble saw Caius as blackmailing society with his supposed indispensability. British productions preferred to lean on Sigmund Freud. Laurence Olivier’s Caius in 1959 was mother-dependent. Ian McKellen in 1963 and again in 1984 gave us a Caius entangled in a homosexual love affair.
There is a recorded performance of the play done in 1984. It was part of the BBC and Time-Life’s monumental project to put all Shakespeare’s plays on TV and then on DVDs. Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Coriolanus can show us what Fiennes’ film adds and subtracts from the original.
Whatever can be said against his film, Fiennes’ Caius Marius Coriolanus carried over from his 2000 Almeida stage performance dwarfs that of Alan Howard in the BBC production. Howard gives us a flakey chancer whom the director has told to be offensive. He makes faces. Fiennes is a stern and solid figure who never seems to be simply running off at the mouth and hints at depths of mystery. His film mother, a key figure in the play, is rendered by the silky Vanessa Redgrave. Her delivery of the lines is luscious but her softness does no justice to the character’s grit. Dressed in military garb, she looks like a Girl Scout matron offering cookies at a Brownie tea. In the role for the BBC, Irene Worth shows her incisors at the right moments. After all, she’s a mother who has extolled the killer instincts of her soldier son. (“He'll beat Aufidius’ head below his knee/And tread upon his neck”. ) The film reduces the womanly presence in the play by making Caius’ wife a non-person. It casts Gerard Butler as Aufidius. Butler, laddish and athletic, suggests an action hero, while Aufidius is for Shakespeare a spurned lover, bitter and inward-looking. What’s more he’s an intellectual as his remarkable analysis (Act IV, Scene VII) of Caius’ character shows. Mike Gwilym in the BBC’s performance has the appropriate macho-free, Hamlet-like “pale cast of thought”.
What amazes is that the various slants given to stage productions over the years all have a basis in the text. It begins with a class struggle. The Patricians with Caius as their mouthpiece admit to keeping food from the Poor because they won’t fight as soldiers. But the Poor are so fickle and easily manipulated by their Tribunes that we feel they merit their famine. Those same Tribunes—as distinct from the Senators friendly to Caius—goad him into insulting the humble outrageously and denying the democracy with a sneer. The upper-class then makes the mistake of letting Caius be banished. Caius himself errors in believing he can hold to his new hatred of Rome and side with the enemy. Aufidius is mistaken as well in his conviction that his love for Caius will permit the two of them to direct an army as equals. The political has narrowed to the personal. When Caius yields to Volumnia’s tears, Aufidius calls him as a mother’s boy, an insult the man of granite cannot stomach. Death is the only exit his character has left him. Aufidius seals it with a lover’s betrayal. He has been clear that their differences have been about who will dominate in their couple. (“Let the first budges die the other’s slave”.)
The French Monarchists had a point in 1934. Caius’ vituperation for the whinging lower orders was indeed show-stopping. Moscow’s Maly Theatre was right all the same. Unbridled pride led Caius to discard a whole people like a pinching pair of boots. Brecht, in the wake of WWII, saw how fabled leaders, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill, had hung around too long as if they were indispensable. Laurence Olivier wasn’t wrong to identify Caius’ mother, Volumnia, as the crucial love of his life. But Ian McKellen had a strong case, underlined by Shakespeare, for seeing Coriolanus as a tragedy of gay love gone awry.
Perhaps it’s asking too much to expect to find all this and poetry among the spilled popcorn and nodding heads at a single popular movie.