THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
CORIOLANUS is Shakespeare’s last tragedy and his most classical. He had completed the big four ( Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear) and had written his two great Roman plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, when he embarked on this story of a patrician general who despises the common people of Rome and is driven to wage war against the city he has crowned with triumphs. A Roman play, it derives from the historian Plutarch, but the story is lost in the mists of Roman Republican times.
Coriolanus has nothing like the lushness of anecdotal detail that makes Antony and Cleopatra in particular such a rich homage to the nuances of the ancient world. It is all concentration and classical form. It has an arrogant, headstrong hero who spits the common herd out of his mouth like bile and comes a cropper because he will never sue for favour.
There is nothing cosy or lovable about the hero. The play belongs to the outer, less popular circle of the Shakespearean canon and it is only since Laurence Olivier played Coriolanus — first in the 1930s and then in 1959 with Edith Evans as his mother, Volumnia — that the play has edged into the frame for the princes of classical acting.
It stands to reason that Ralph Fiennes, who was a Shakespearean actor before finding fame in films such as Schindler’s List and The English Patient, should want to memorialise his stage success on film, even to the point of directing himself. He has enviable casting, with Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, arguably the greatest Shakespearean role for an older woman; Brian Cox as wily politician Menenius; and Jessica Chastain as Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia.
It is par for the course for stage productions of Shakespeare to be in modern and non-period dress — we take for granted that Ian Mckellen’s King Lear for Trevor Nunn opens with the division of the kingdom in a court that might be Romanov or Habsburg, and that we’re likely to see Shakespearean comedy in board shorts or hip underwear.
It’s a problematic choice, however, with a fundamentally illusionistic medium such as film, which can simulate ancient Rome or the Middle Ages with the effortless wave of a wand. Mckellen’s Richard III for Richard Eyre at Britain’s National Theatre looked natural on stage in 30s military clobber, with stiff upper lip and fascist overtones, more than it did when it was translated on to the screen in 1995 by Richard Loncraine, replete with tanks and heavy artillery to simulate modern warfare on Bosworth field where a horse can be worth a kingdom.
The most famous of all Richard IIIS — Olivier’s — has elaborately accurate 15thcentury medieval costumes and design just as his Henry V, which begins at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, jumps back to a dreamy Book of the Hours medievalism. Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V film has a different look but it’s still heraldic and helmeted.
When it comes to the Roman plays, directors have found it hard to resist a toga. The most distinguished of these is Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud as Cassius. This is black and white (though a colour print with Brando in a red toga exists) and it is as classical looking as a column. The ancient world setting is also there in Charlton Heston’s versions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra with himself as Antony and Hildegard Neil as Cleopatra. It’s interesting that we tend to remember modern dress Shakespeare on stage — say, the Sam Mendes-directed Richard III with Kevin Spacey — as simply something that provides no barrier to the imagination, whereas modern dress in a film imposes parameters.
For Coriolanus Fiennes has chosen what A. D. Hope called ‘‘ the drab green and desolate grey in the field uniform of modern war’’ associated, just at the moment, with film and television images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fiennes is certainly intent on bringing out the modernity of Coriolanus and one argument in favour is that the 20th century rediscovered it. Formidable literary critic and scholar Frank Kermode remarked on the unsurpassed architectonics of the play and compared it to the Beethoven of the late string quartets. He was articulating an appreciation of the wiry brilliance of the play’s very free and flexible verse at a time when actors such as Olivier and Richard Burton were discovering impassioned coherence and a politically riveting, dramatic presence in the play’s hero.
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s most unusual characterisations. The dramatist was famously cross-textured and moody in his approach to tragedy: Hamlet, as a role, is full of high comedy and lyrical introspection; Othello is the prey of a villain and the dupe of a trick; Macbeth is a villain with consciousness and a conscience equal to his capacity for evil. King Lear has plenty of comedy and tilts towards the consolations of romance, only to shatter them, and its unparalleled power comes from the way Shakespeare presents us with a blind brute of a hero who has capacity to love and suffer unbearably.
Gielgud once said he was not very interested in Coriolanus (at least for himself as an actor and director) because it was one of Shakespeare’s most political plays. It begins with Menenius, who describes himself as belonging to ‘‘ the right-hand file’’, the conservative patrician party, arguing that the patrician class in Rome is like the belly of the body: it has a central function.
Coriolanus is the war hero, the great general and star soldier. As Caius Martius he conquers the Volscians, a neighbouring enemy of the Romans, in their city of Corioles and is nicknamed Coriolanus in consequence. He has shown consistent contempt for the common people of Rome and when he is in a position to get the consulship has to beg for their support. The enemies of the patrician party, the people’s senators (who are professional politicians), know this is going to be difficult for him and they play on it. Meanwhile his patrician intimates — his fierce tough-minded mother Volumnia and Menenius, the suave old smoothie of a Tory politician — urge him to ask nicely (whatever contempt he feels). Everything goes wrong and the senators — worldly men, however morally threadbare — contrive it so the people (who have been amiably enough disposed to the war hero) banish him.
Coriolanus in an extraordinary moment of colossal invective turns the rejection back on them: ‘‘ You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate/ As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize/ As the dead carcasses of unburied men/ That do corrupt my air — I banish you.’’
Olivier did the speech with an absolutely flinty contempt. No actor has been better as giving the fascist flash of fury to his voice, turning it into a knife or sabre. The recordings of Olivier highlight the absolute hauteur of one of nature’s aristocrats. It’s one of the great losses to the world of Shakespeare on film that Stanley Kubrick didn’t record Olivier’s Coriolanus for the world (Olivier played Coriolanus for the second time after playing Crassus for Kubrick in Spartacus).
Burton played Coriolanus at the Old Vic in the early 50s and it was as if he were finding the dark side of his Henry V. The audio recording suggests a man with an absolute, nearly religious belief in his own powers and in his right to command. With his stony baritone, his clipped consonants and his ability to register scathing contempt he was ideally equipped for the part.
Ralph Fiennes, centre, as Coriolanus