Modern-dress Shakespeare has been with us for nearly a century, long enough to cease being a novelty or in need of justification. Barry Jackson’s 1920s Cymbeline at Birmingham Rep with the cast in first world war uniform is the key example we were shown pictures of as sixth-formers in the late 40s. Traditional dress, however we define it, is currently pretty rare, though film-makers, no doubt because of the continuing popularity of Roman epics, reached for their togas when Charlton Heston appeared in fustian versions of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The only recent movie to deal with one of the Roman plays was Richard Linklater’s 2008 Me and Orson Welles, about the controversy surrounding Welles’s 1937 anti-fascist modern-dress production of Julius Caesar in New York.
But now we have Ralph Fiennes’s bloody and bold directorial debut, Coriolanus, magnificently filmed in a present-day setting. This is the first time Shakespeare’s last tragedy has been brought to the screen, though there is a memorable reference in Cole Porter’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” in Kiss Me, Kate (“If she says your behaviour is heinous/ Kick her right up the Coriolanus”). It’s a tough, uningratiating play that has fascinated writers as different as TS Eliot and Bertolt Brecht. A deeply, divisively political work, devoid of comic relief and short on endearing characters, its complex moral conflicts are as knotty as the verse. Despite the absence of any popular demand from the audience, it demands to be produced regularly and actors wish to be tested in the role.
Fiennes played the part a dozen years ago at the cavernous Gainsborough film studio in Islington, north London just before it was demolished and, either because of the venue’s size or the scope of the production, he was glacially impressive rather than what he is in the film, ferociously commanding. Shot in Serbia and reeking of the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia, the film is as up to date as today’s news, and indeed it opens as if we’d just switched on the TV to watch the latest bulletin from a state torn by civil strife. Here before us is Jon Snow himself as a newscaster, speaking Shakespeare’s blank verse turned into breaking news and interviewing Roman experts on the current events for Fidelis TV. The hungry plebeians in jeans and bomber jackets are staging an uprising, demanding that the greedy, overfed patricians release corn from their warehouses. The quietly reasonable senator Menenius (Brian Cox) urges restraint, but his close friend the military leader Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes) gives the crowd a tongue-lashing, and the police, their wall of shields resembling a Roman testudo, drive the mob away. It takes a war against the Volscian enemy to divert internal threats into external danger, and after the successful battle at Corioles, Caius Martius is given the honorific title “Coriolanus”.
For Corioles you might read the Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq or Chechnya, and the battle is shot by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd with the dusty, dangerous documentary-style realism he has brought to movies by Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass, and to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Coriolanus becomes a national hero, but he’s incapable of wooing the public because of his honesty, disdain for flattery and inability to compromise. The craven tribunes of the people (brilliantly played as shifty political opportunists by Paul Jesson and James Nesbitt) demand his banishment, and he’s driven into exile. There he forms an alliance against Rome with his deadly Volscian enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the guerrilla fighter with whom he shares a warrior’s code and a homoerotic attraction. From this decision tragedy inevitably ensues, as he fails to live up to the necessary ruthlessness his actions demand.
In adapting the play, John Logan (who worked on Gladiator and Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biography, The Aviator) has sharply cut the text, removing the obscurer passages but retaining its lucidity and eloquence and providing a sharp, graphic narrative. No attempt is made to make the proud Coriolanus into a vote-getter or crowd-pleaser. Whether shaven-headed and covered in blood from battle, smartly uniformed as a potential national leader or long-haired and bearded in exile, he remains his own man, a self-elected outsider. The only time he invites pity is when he yields to entreaties from his fiercely ambitious mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), the very woman who has turned him into an uncompromising warrior.
At once visceral and intelligent, this beautifully acted, vividly staged film brings a powerful, challenging honesty to bear on class, political life and the demands we make on our leaders. It reaches out in many different directions, and in ways that Shakespeare could never have foreseen. Just to mention a couple. First, the great South African actor John Kani, major exponent of Athol Fugard’s plays and for decades a victim of apartheid, is cast as General Cominius. This strong, wise leader, ready to fight but always an advocate of peaceful solutions, inevitably reminds us of Nelson Mandela. Second, a title eloquently announces the setting as “A Place Calling Itself Rome”. This is the title of John Osborne’s 1972 reworking of Coriolanus, a play that remains unproduced. Osborne, who felt himself rejected by the British theatre, not only identified himself with the banished Roman general but brought his own angry, intransigent protagonists – Jimmy Porter, Archie Rice, Martin Luther, Bill Maitland – into the same band of misfits.
COURTESY: THE GUARDIAN