Coriolanus: war, politics, vengeance

Shakespeare’s least-performed play, Coriolanus was familiar to me only by reputation before I saw Ralph Fiennes’ new film adaptation of  the last tragedy.  It is a resounding success, having the same cinematic brio as Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet (1996), Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing (1993), and Richard Loncraine’s 1995 account of Richard III set in the fascist 1930s.

The screenplay by John Logan is faithful to the text, but compresses it significantly. The sizzling power of the film resides in the cinematic vision of  Logan and Fiennes (who place the action in a present-day world of riots, armed conflict, 24/7 TV news, cynical political manoeuvering and spin), the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd, and superb performances by Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox.

Ralph Fiennes played the lead role of Caius Martius, the victorious Roman general who is proud and contemptuous towards the people on the London stage at the Almeida Theatre in 2000, and was afterwards determined to bring the play to the big screen.

The film was shot in Serbia (largely for financial reasons) – much of it in the capital, Belgrade.  The senate scenes of political machinations were filmed in the Serbian parliament building, and, ironically, areas of Belgrade still derelict after NATO’s 1999 bombing proved ideal for the film’s battle scenes.

The 19th century essayist William Hazlitt said, ‘anyone who studies Coriolanus may save himself the trouble of reading Burke’s Reflections, or Paine’s Rights of Man, or the debates in both Houses of Parliament since the French Revolution or our own’. The play is overtly political, its subject matter the conflict between plebeians and patricians during and after the First Secession in Rome in 494BC.  There is a shortage of grain, and the starving plebeians rise in open revolt against the patricians. The rebellion is only suppressed when the plebeians are granted five Tribunes to represent them in the Senate.  Hazlitt wrote of Coriolanus: ‘The whole dramatic moral of Coriolanus is that those who have little shall have less, and that those who have much shall take all that others have left’.

Fascinated by the politics, Bertolt Brecht wrestled with an attempt to adapt Coriolanus for two years, from 1951 to 1953 (mocked, almost certainly unfairly, by Günter Grass in The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising.  Brecht’s aim was to rescue the play from various fascistic interpretations of the 1930s (it had been banned for that reason in France in the 1930s, and then by the American occupying forces in Germany in the  immediate aftermath of the war, while in Hitler’s Germany, the play served as educational propaganda preaching military bravery and heroism in the face of questionable democracy).  Brecht  felt that the play, written in 1605, spoke to the spirit of his time, too. The last entry entry in his working diary reads: ‘Couldn’t one do it just as it is, only with skilful direction?’. Indeed, this is pretty much what Fiennes and his team have done.

The film begins with nothing but the sinister sound of the rasp of a knife blade being sharpened on a whetstone.  Then, with no pause for opening credits, we are plunged into riot and rebellion. The plebeians are starving from high grain prices, and are plotting to kill Caius Martius: ‘a very dog to the commonalty‘.  They lay siege to a grain warehouse, and Caius Martius storms out from ranks of his armed soldiers to tell them they have no right to any say in the price of grain:

What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs? [...]
He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring.

After this professional soldier has been lionised by Rome’s ruling class for his attack on the threatening Volscian army, Martius receives the honorary name ‘Coriolanus’ for having destroyed the Volscian city of Corioli, and is nominated as a Consul.  But his refusal to submit to popular acclaim for the office and his inability to conceal his contempt for the plebeians ultimately results in his banishment from Rome.

By sensitive cutting of the text, Fiennes maintains the dynamic pace through the scenes of political manoeuvering in the Senate. Coriolanus resembles an unexploded bomb which the patricians attempt, unsuccessfully, to stabilise within the populist procedures of the Roman constitution.  As Brian Vickers  has observed, this is the political problem of the play:

The central sequence in Acts II and III of Coriolanus resembles a gigantic two-party election, fought according to the usual political rules of magnification of one’s own party and denigration of the other. Coriolanus is the protagonist on one side, organized and rehearsed by the patricians, while on the other the Tribunes groom their protagonist, the mob. (As well as resembling an election campaign, this sequence recalls two rival theatrical productions). Menenius acts as Coriolanus’s campaign manager. His mother handles the visuals, telling Coriolanus how to act humble in public: for in such business ‘action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant more learned than the ears’.

But, Coriolanus refuses to bow before the populace, and responds to the senators informing him that he is banished from Rome for being a traitor to the people with this tirade:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcases of unburied men
That do corrupt my air,- I banish you

Brian Cox (left) and Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus

There’s some truly impressive acting here.  Brian Cox is excellent as Menenius, the wily but exasperated ally of Coriolanus, while Vanessa Redgrave  is magnificent as Volumnia: a fearsome portrayal of an implacable and powerful woman who wants for nothing more than success for her son:

Had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike and none less dear than thine and my good Marcius,
I had rather eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.

Redgrave gives us a terrifying woman, who has brought her son up to be a warrior, ‘was pleased to let him seek
danger where he was like to find fame’, and who can say:

Blood is more beautiful than milk, the wound than the breast, warfare than peaceful feeding.

Volumnia has reared her son to serve as a model of a particular type of masculinity, and the film, high on testosterone with its war movie stylings, explores that to the hilt, particularly in a sequence involving a knife fight between Martius  and the Volscian general Aufidius.   The screenplay pounds and resounds to the reverberations of our time: riot, street warfare, nationalism, militarism, politics and spin, it’s all here.  Walls are covered with graffiti, grenade launchers replace swords, TV screens are everywhere relaying the latest events – we even get Jon Snow in his TV news anchor role, announcing the latest from the battlefront.

Banished from Rome, Coriolanus seeks revenge by forming an alliance with Rome’s greatest enemy, the Volscian  general Tullus Aufidius.  They march on Rome and begin their offensive.  A Roman senator remarks of Coriolanus:

I think he’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature

TS Eliot regarded this play as Shakespeare’s greatest artistic achievement, and Fiennes certainly lifts it from its recent neglected status with this muscular adaptation. It’s a complex play, and Fiennes retains Shakespeare’s ambiguities. The people in Coriolanus are stupid and ignorant; the tribunes are petty and manipulative. Coriolanus is brave, great and noble, but a vengeful traitor to his country. The play is suspicious of both military heroism and the power of the people.  In the struggle between the arrogant patrician warrior and the people for whom he has no respect, Shakespeare exposes layers of complexity and contradiction on both sides.

If you have writ your annals true, ’t is there
That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli:
Alone I did it.

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