Saturday, 28 January 2012


The news that Ralph Fiennes was directing Coriolanus for the cinema was greeted by me with enthusiasm until I realised I had confused this Shakespearean tragedy with Titus Androdonicus which I had seen at Stratford as well as when the RSC visited Newcastle. Coriolanus the character is in fact a fascist soldier with aristocratic contempt for the people, the plebeians, and for the concept of democracy. He is a tragic figure because he is the product of an ambition warmongering dominating mother who is also in control of his wife and son,

Mr Fiennes is best known for his performances in the English Patient, the Constant Gardener and the Duke of Devonshire in the Duchess once more on BBC on Saturday evening. He is also to appear in a remake film of Great Expectations as Magwitch.

He is faithful to the story and to much of the Text and to the setting of the play in Rome and Italy, but here is where the liberty is taken because the period is not the Latin era of the Consuls but the twentieth century and filmed in a grim war torn Serbia. He also brings the fore the role of his mother and of his wife. An aspect where performances were understandably limited with boys playing female figures at the time the works were written.

As with the text and various examples throughout history there are food shortages to an extent that the people do not have sufficient grain to make bread and what exists is controlled with priority given to the military and the patricians. The mob has been stirred by political agitators with their personal as well as civic agenda, written in an era within fifty years of the British Civil War.

Their anger has been directed on the military hero and deputy commander Caius Marcius who has already made known his contempt for the masses while distinguishing him repeatedly in battles. The agitation is led by Senators Brutus and Scinius played by Paul Jesson as the behind the scenes manipulator and James Nesbitt as the front man.

His wife is anxious for his welfare but his mother chides her for being soft hearted declaring she would rather have a dozen sons killed in battle that one living who puts his wife and personal welfare before the honour of combat and the acquisition of the scars of battle which should then be shown to the people to maintain their adoration and continuing support. Her main ally and supporter of Caius is Menenius Agrippa a kind of Speaker in the House, who with the support of the present Consul, a combined state head and Prime Minister rolled into one, are keen for Caius to be appointed when circumstances are propitious. To become Consul one must have the voice of the Senate and of the people at the Forum. While Menenius controls the body of the Senate, Nesbitt and co know the minds and the emotions of the people, and more importantly how to press the right buttons to get the people worked up and taking their lead.

When news comes that the leader of the Volscians, Tullus Aufidius, has launched a new campaign to right the grievances against the Roman state Caius concentrates on what interests him best, the business of fighting and in the film we are treated to an exposition of contemporary warfare with high powered rapid firing weapons and hand delivered rockets. When ordered you advance whatever the personal cost is likely to be and I was remind of this continuing principle of military authority with a Blackadder episode in which the men were told to go over the top and die in combat rather than retreat in cowardly dishonour.

The Volscians are defeated but Tullus escapes after a direct confrontation with Caius who returns to the acclaim of the Senate and the honour of being renamed Coriolanus after the place of the victory. Menenius and the mother of Coriolanus determine this is the moment for the warrior to become the state leader. The appearance before the Senate goes according to although Coriolanus refuses to listen to the acclamation speech on his behalf and he is reluctant to respond other than to accept the honour.

He agrees to attend the Forum (market place in the film) with reluctance and refuses to show his war wounds which is the required custom. He returns to the senate for confirmation and inauguration but makes the mistake of wanting to first change his clothing. This provides the opportunity for the conspirators to psyche the crowd into changing their minds and demand the impeachment of Coriolanus.

Coriolanus then resists the counselling of Menenius, his mother and other supporters including the existing Consul, to moderate his approach and say what is needed to convince the people. The device which the film uses is a modern day Television appearance after he agrees to do what is necessary. The conspirators have a few placed supporters in the audience to respond to the signal of Nesbitt to demand the trial and sentencing of Coriolanus for his contempt of the people. He does his best to cooperate with the wishes of his supporters but is quickly goaded into exposing his real feelings. Nesbitt calls for banishment which is quickly taken up by the studio audience. The conspirators are elated and keep the political status quo.

Coriolanus is bitter and determines on revenge and makes his way to the Volscians capital and demands to be presented to Tullus where he offers his life as a means of humiliating Rome. However his aim is to offer his services to help Tullus and his countryman wage war again on Rome and they seize on this with enthusiasm. The problem is that Coriolanus is too successful and the men begin to support him rather than Tullus and his leadership. They begin to try and look like their idol, shaving their heads like him and Tullus and his advisers begin to worry about their position.

As the invaders advance on the capital there is growing panic among the leadership and the citizenry and against his better judgement Menenius is commissioned to go and seek a peaceful settlement. When the mission fails he is sent away with a flea in his ear and commits suicide.

This leaves the mother, wife and son who previously attempted to get the conspirators to reverse the banishment, to now plead for the city, humiliating themselves, prepared to say and do whatever he asks of them. When it appears he is so wedded to his need for revenge that he will yield nothing, he relents, consults Tullus who agrees that to a peace deal. In the play it is only when The Volscians returns to their capital that they turn of Coriolanus and kill him. In the film Tullus and his men wait outside of Rome for the Peace deal to be signed during which time he becomes concerned about the reaction of the Volscians given that they had Rome at their mercy and fearing the response make a scapegoat of Coriolanus.

Both play and film make the point that Generals should stick to their profession and not enter politics and that in a democracy the masses can be manipulated one way or their other by demagogues. It is also a statement about the power that some parents can exert over their children. It is also clear that the play will be used by those on the extreme right as a statement in favour of fascism and dictatorships.

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