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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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This tragedy is world famous and among Shakespeare's is one of the
deepest and most political. It deals with the social classes of Rome in
those old days. The people are the free Romans who are not nobles or
generals. These plebeians have representatives next to the Senate, the
tribunes, elected by them. The Senate is elected too but by the
nobility and patricians. At the time of Coriolanus the Tribunes had
some kind of veto right on decisions and especially on appointments.
The situation is difficult. The war was won in extremis by Coriolanus,
the son of a noble family. The Senate wants to make him Consul but he
refuses to bow down in front of the tribunes and the plebeians and is
banished by them. He at once joins his previous enemy, whom he had
defeated and is of course leading his army to the gates of Rome. But
his banishment shows the absurdity of a political system based on
democracy, on leaders elected by the people. The leaders to be elected
or accepted have to flatter the people and that is the worst possible
situation. The people do not want to hear the truth when there is a
difficulty, and they do not want to share the decisions then. They are
led by their desire to be flattered to absurd decisions that may lead
the whole country to a catastrophe, to a standstill or to a complete
collapse. The flattery the leaders are using is immoral in many ways
but is it the only way? Unluckily it is except if you manage to
side-track these plebeians and to have majority of people with you on
the side of a realistic policy. That is the deepest evil of democracy.
Then we are confronted to vengeance in politics. It is the second worst motivation. It leads to deaf and dumb positions and attitudes that may make you a traitor in a situation similar to that of Rome which was not a popular democracy but a feudal democracy based on a slave state. The great advantage of democracy is that you can always try to get your revenge in the elections, whereas in the Roman situation revenge meant sedition, treason, betrayal, physical destruction of all and everything that had opposed you. Strangely enough this makes the situation even less sure and less stable because then the "traitor" is under pressure from his friends, his family, his relatives not to complete his vengeance and destroy the city or country that used to be his own, and along with it his own parents, wife, children, etc.
This play is marvelous because of some extraordinary scenes. The scene about the "absolute shall" is a prodigy, a miracle.
« SICINIUS: It is a mind That shall remain a poison where it is, Not poison any further. CORIOLANUS: Shall remain! Hear you this Triton of the minnows? mark you His absolute 'shall'? COMINIUS: 'Twas from the canon. CORIOLANUS: 'Shall'! O good but most unwise patricians! why, You grave but reckless senators, have you thus Given Hydra here to choose an officer, That with his peremptory 'shall,' being but The horn and noise o' the monster's, wants not spirit To say he'll turn your current in a ditch, And make your channel his? If he have power Then vail your ignorance; if none, awake Your dangerous lenity. If you are learn'd, Be not as common fools; if you are not, Let them have cushions by you. You are plebeians, If they be senators: and they are no less, When, both your voices blended, the great'st taste Most palates theirs. They choose their magistrate, And such a one as he, who puts his 'shall,' His popular 'shall' against a graver bench Than ever frown in Greece. By Jove himself! It makes the consuls base: and my soul aches To know, when two authorities are up, Neither supreme, how soon confusion May enter 'twixt the gap of both and take The one by the other. » But the tragedy goes a long way beyond that scorn and condescendence. It shows the other phenomenal scene of the mother, the wife, the virginal temple servant and the son pleading for mercy and peace. Poignant, and all the more so because we know that this never happens and that in such situations only hatred dominates and triumphs, be it only in the name of military efficiency. But the scene is brilliant and brilliantly acted by an admirable actress. And the triumph of that mother coming back into Rome with the peace promised by her son is quite noble and impressive. But Shakespeare pushes slightly further his political reasoning.
Corialanus was the victorious general of Coriali. He was betrayed by some rabble, some populace who used or were used by their tribunes to get their way. A mistake that disturbed the fabric of history. Then Coriolanus becomes a traitor as a result. He is brought back to his senses by his mother but then he betrays the military pact he had agreed on with his ex-enemy and that disturbs again the fabric of history. Hence it has to be rectified and it is done by the hand of Coriolanus' ex-enemy, on the day when he brings a peace treaty and his sword as a token of that peace. And this ex-enemy kills Coriolanus with Coriolanus' own weapon. The rectification is total. A great pleasure to see such a great production.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID
Although the BBC Time-Life dramatization of Coriolanus is titled The
Tragedy of Coriolanus, there is some opinion that considers the play a
comedy, albeit a very dark satire of the consequences of a haughty
patrician arrogance. Who is being satirized, of course, is open for
discussion, but one suggestion is that the play skews the ill-fated
Earl of Essex, a British commander who led a campaign in Ireland and
whose overweening ego and hubris led him to the Tower and beheading at
the age of 35 after the so-called Essex Rebellion of 1601. Not printed
until the First Folio of 1623 and not performed publicly prior until
much later, no evidence exists that would support orthodox claims for a
date of composition of 1605 to 1608 and the date the play was written
Shakespeare's primary source for Coriolanus was Plutarch's The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, first translated into French by Bishop Jacques Amyot in 1559 and then into English by Thomas North in 1579 and popular enough to reach its third printing in 1603. This enormous work by the Greek philosopher and biographer, among several books purchased by the 19-year-old Edward de Vere in the original Amyot translation (receipts for this purchase still exist), was the principal source for several of Shakespeare's plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, and Julius Caesar.
Though the author follows Plutarch's account of the life of Coriolanus, Shakespeare expands on the role of Coriolanus' mother Volumnia (Irene Worth), Coriolanus' (Alan Howard) inner turmoil, his wife Virgilia (Joanna McCallum) and on the character of Menenius (Joss Ackland) whose prominence in the play is not matched in Plutarch. The story revolves around a rather obscure Roman soldier from the 5th Century BC named Caius Marcius, whose winning battles against the Volsces, the enemies of Rome. His attack against the city of Corioli, defended by Volsces general Lucius Afidius (Mike Gwilym), leads him to be named Caius Marcius Coriolanus and a triumphant return to Rome. There he is nominated for consul, a term-limited position that requires confirmation by the Senate and by the people.
It is soon apparent that recently elected Tribunes will oppose his nomination because of his opposition to plebian representation in the senate. As Coriolanus' disdain for the common people becomes painfully evident, his overbearing pride leads him to be declared a traitor and he is summarily banished from Rome. Returning to Antium, he joins forces with Aufidius, his former enemy, to lead a vengeful assault on Rome, where his wife, mother, and son still reside but, ironically in his most compassionate moment, he is brought down after an eloquent plea by his powerful mother to abandon the campaign.
Though most everything about the authorship controversy is speculation, one is forced to wonder how a commoner could (in the totalitarian atmosphere of Elizabethan England) get away with writing a play in which the tragic downfall of an aristocrat is brought about by his disdain for the common people. Though it is true that Shakespeare makes the Plebians unruly and deceitful, he makes class distinctions the center of the story, a rather audacious act, and the disgraced soldier is eventually revered for his nobility.
While the play is not on the level of Shakespeare's great tragedies such as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear (there is no inner soul searching or comic relief), the performance by Alan Howard as Coriolanus captures the character's willful arrogance and the production is very well put together, one of the best BBC adaptations. One looks forward to the upcoming film of Coriolanus directed by Ralph Fiennes scheduled to begin shooting in March 2010.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Coriolanus" is a good Shakespeare play, though lack the thematic and
character precision of some his better tragedies, most notably
"Macbeth" which was also about a soldier.
Caius Marcius - later renamed Coriolanus - (Alan Howard) returns to Rome after a proud victory over the Volscian warrior and his nemesis Tullus Aufidius (Mike Gwylim). However his proud disdain for the people of Rome sees him quickly banished by the senators, setting the scene for his downfall that not even the appeals of sympathetic senator (Joss Ackland) or his mother (Irene Worth) can prevent.
Howard is quite a presence as Coriolanus, bristling with arrogance and hatred. His performance, though, is a little too theatrical at times. Mike Gwylim is fine as Aufidius and Irene Worth is a fine matronly presence as Volumnia, his mother.
It's technically very interesting to watch despite the typically clumsy stage fighting. Corioli and the home of the Volscis are crimson sets, appropriate for a defeated people drenched in blood and anger and the battles are framed well enough in darkly lit backgrounds of smoke and fire. Some scenes could have been trimmed for pacing.
Another good entry, and a reasonable enough try at one of Shakespeare's more difficult plays.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This performance of Coriolanus is a miraculous work of art.
It is superb from beginning to end but 3 scenes stand out;
- Coriolanus' farewell to his wife and mother - Coriolanus' first meeting with Aufidius - The death of Coriolanus.
In the death scene the Director has ignored Shakespeare's explicit stage directions and introduced some ambiguity. Is Coriolanus saying,"kill" to spur himself on or is he urging Aufidius to kill him?
Leaving open the possibility that Coriolanus felt he deserved to die for giving in to pity is a brilliant touch and deepens the sense of tragedy.
The cast is extremely impressive. They all had a clear comprehension of the meaning and significance of everything they did and said. They did not merely act but lived their parts.
This performance moved me to tears. Shakespeare has never done that to me before.
I wish Nietzsche could have seen this performance.
Some critics say that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is not as good as Shakespeare's other tragedies because they do not understand Coriolanus' motivations due to the lack of soliloquies from him.
I am sure Shakespeare understood that this play would appeal to only a few. Those few would not need soliloquies because they would know that Coriolanus was thinking what they think and suffering what they suffer.
Coriolanus is Hamlet in another time and place. Coriolanus and Hamlet are the greatest plays ever written. I have never seen a truly great performance of Hamlet but at least I have now seen a truly great performance of Coriolanus.
I don't want to be too critical of this, since it is the only available version of this play. Alan Howard does a great job in the title role, making you believe in his character, and all of the other actors do great jobs too. Of course, then there's the problem all of the BBC productions had with this cycle: the production never put in the money to make these plays seem like real films, something Olivier or Brannagh would make, so you get pretty dull sets and very little music, and of course no breathtaking battles or sword fights. Still, that's not the fault of this movie, and like I said, I'm thankful at least one version exists. The DVD comes with subtitles or you can follow along with the text if you're unfamiliar with the play like I was. It's worth checking out if you get the chance.
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