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Coriolanus is the most problematic of Shakespeare's tragedies.
Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Lear keep us posted as to their internal states in extended soliloquies. However, Coriolanus is a proud soldier who loves his mother and is totally useless in any other context. What goes on inside his head is either shallow, wrong or just plain uncommunicative. As a result, it is much more difficult than usual to understand what is happening, and to evaluate our own response to it.
Alan Howard brings his verbal precision and ready sneer to the difficult title part. No one's lip curls downwards more eagerly than his, but you may get confused as to how you feel about the progress of his downfall. Irene Worth works well with the camera in making her presence count as his mother, Volumnia.
The rest of the cast boasts some real vocal splendor - Joss Ackland, Anthony Pedley, Valentine Dyall all rumble away magnificently, and the normally resonant Leon Lissek dries his voice out for contrast (unlike, say, his performance in "Shogun.")
Mike Gwilym is perhaps a little too young for Coriolanus's arch-enemy Aufidias, but he acquits himself well enough. The homoerotic element of the Coriolanus-Aufidias relationship is fully justified by the text, but exactly how explicitly it should be shown is a subject for endless debate. It is worth pointing out, however, that the final chorus of "Kill! Kill! Kill!" is here reduced to a duet, with the crowd silent and only the two of them shouting in a kind of macho Liebestod.
The real problem with this video is a word beginning with "C," but it's not Coriolanus, it's Caravaggio. Director Elijah Moshinsky's key to the whole production is Caravaggio's paintings, much as Vermeer is to his "All's Well That Ends Well." Unfortunately, the melodramatic ripeness of Caravaggio's lighting seem not to blend well with the conceptual austerity of most of the conflicts in the text. So two artistic experiences play out simultaneously in parallel, but according to more than one viewer, the twain never meet.
"Coriolanus" is, among other things, a play about class. Unfortunately, the costumes of the period chosen here do not always indicate instantly the class of the wearer, and in the prevailing gloom, wholly black costumes don't always register. We shouldn't have to decode these things - they should be obvious and unobtrusive.
The editing is also a problem. Under the director's supervision, scenes often end abruptly and cut directly to the next, producing not the desired impression of speed, but irritation in the viewer. Sometimes we are staring at a reaction shot, when the reaction is not at all informative and we'd be better off watching the face of the speaker.
Perhaps part of the cause is the compressed production schedule, but some editorial rhythms seem clumsy, and that's not characteristic of the BBC's house style - occasionally somnolent, perhaps, but never clumsy.
In sum, the production is not bad, but does not make the case for bringing the play out of obscurity as Shakespeare's least honored tragedy. Mr. T. S. Eliot insisted that "Coriolanus" is a better play than "Hamlet." This video does nothing to force us to agree with him.
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