Theatre has a sense of urgency and spontaneity that films have to work hard to match; cinema has the intimacy of the close-up, not to mention that it democratizes the view. Short of having gobs of blood land on your popcorn, we do not know how the film of the National Theatre Live broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus could’ve had a more visceral impact.
Interesting that a lesser-known tragedy by Shakespeare should find new and vibrant life in the 21st century. A couple of years ago there was the film adaptation by Ralph Fiennes, set in the Balkans. This production directed by Josie Rourke is in contemporary dress, but set nowhere in particular. We are constantly reminded that it is a play—a bare stage, chairs, lines drawn in paint, and ladders used to great effect. There is even a 15-minute intermission, with a clock counting down the seconds. The lines of the play appear as subtitles, which is much appreciated (“So that’s what that line means.” “So that’s how it’s pronounced…”)
They do not need an elaborate set. They do not need a location. They have a brilliant star and superb players to deliver words written four centuries ago by a man whose identity academics still argue about. (Of course we know very little about William Shakespeare, he was writing all those plays and didn’t have much time for anything else.) Tom Hiddleston may be the boyfriend of the Internet circa 2014, but Shakespeare speaks to all times. You could set his plays in any century, in any country, in any culture, and they will work. When people colonize other planets, they will stage Shakespeare and it will still tell them more about the human condition than any number of textbooks. Costumes and settings change, but not love, hate, greed, envy, ambition. (Maybe we should quit trying to write because Shakespeare’s done pretty much everything.)
Coriolanus is especially relevant in this era of popular revolutions and the ever-present threat of militarism and fascism. Its hero-antihero is Caius Martius (Hiddleston), a great warrior who takes the enemy city Corioles almost single-handedly and returns home to the accolades of the Senate and his bloodthirsty mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay). Volumnia takes in his wounds with a pleasure that is almost sexual—it is she, not the dutiful Virgilia (Birgitte Sorensen) who seems to be his wife. (Given the influence of Shakespeare on psychoanalysis, Hamlet’s mother etc, we wonder what Shakespeare’s own mummy was like.)
The Senate, composed of aristocrats, gives Caius Martius the honorary nickname Coriolanus after the city he conquered. (In an interview Hiddleston compared this to calling Andy Murray “Wimbledonus”; how could we not be impressed by the tennis analogy?) His mother and his mentor Menenius Agrippa (Mark Gatiss, who also got squeals from Sherlock fans) want him to run for Consul.
But in order to become Consul, he has to get the vote of the common people. Not only is Coriolanus a terrible elitist, but he is the worst politician imaginable. He cannot hide his contempt of the masses. He cannot lie to save his life. There is something admirable in that kind of brutal honesty. And the common people are fickle, gullible, a herd easily manipulated by the tribunes Sicinia and Brutus. That is why Coriolanus has been viewed as a dangerous play, and sometimes banned as a fascist tract.
There’s the outstanding scene in which Coriolanus stands in the shower, gasping as the water hits his wounds and washes off the blood. (We thought the viewers were going to throw 500-peso bills at the screen.) You are repelled, and you are turned on. Because, admit it, it is very attractive to think of a leader who will destroy your enemies and tell you what to do. When you hand over your rights to such a leader, you buy into the idea of fascism.
TO BE CONTINUED (We have a movie to sell the hell out of. We are happy to talk about Tom Hiddleston all week, but you have to go and see Norte. Deal?)
Meanwhile, something from 2012: Our review of Ralph Fiennes’s film of Coriolanus