Ralph Fiennes and Coriolanus on film

In the UK we’re in party conference season, where the political parties have their annual meetings: there’s much jostling for position while leaders try to reaffirm their dominance. And in the USA, although there’s over a year to go until the next presidential election, a number of candidates have already formally announced they’ll be running. In both systems standing for election puts politicians under close scrutiny and any slip can be catastrophic to their chances.

 Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most political play, and asks many questions about power and the political process. It’s not an easy play to watch: there’s no sub-plot, no comic relief. Coriolanus himself is the centre of attention in almost every scene, and Shakespeare makes sure that the audience never quite know what to think of him. He’s a supreme soldier and leader of troops in time of war, but has none of the skills to make him effective in peacetime politics. Do we admire him for his honesty, even if we find his opinions distasteful, or condemn him for his violence and unwillingness to compromise?

 In order to be voted consul, Coriolanus has to win popular approval, tricky when in the first lines of the play he’s described as “chief enemy to the people”. His only hope is to be able to disguise his true feelings, in effect to learn the skills of the actor. His mother encourages him to “perform a part thou hast not done before”. He knows it’s “a part which never I shall discharge to th’life”.  He finds the whole idea distasteful:

                                      Must I
With my base tongue give to my noble heart
A lie that it must bear?

 He knows he will have to dissemble as much as the harlot, the knave and the beggar.

 Away, my disposition, and possess me
Some harlot’s spirit! My throat of war be turned,
Which choired with my drum, into a pipe
Small as an eunuch or the virgin voice
That babies lulls asleep! The smiles of knaves
Tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys’ tears take up
The glasses of my sight! A beggar’s tongue
Make motion through my lips, and my armed knees,
Who bowed but in my stirrup, bend like his
That hath received an alms!

 A new film of Coriolanus, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes, will be released in the next few months. The film’s well-timed to be in cinemas in the USA in December, January in the UK. Fiennes has given some interviews about the film.

The trailer’s action-packed, and I’ve read reviews suggesting it’ll be popular with fans of war films, while also a triumph for Fiennes. The poster suggests it’s principally about the rivalry between Coriolanus and his rival Aufidius.

Let’s hope it also gives weight to the compelling discussions about politics and the nature of power which sit at the heart of Shakespeare’s play. Who rules, and how accountable should our rulers be? How much of a role should the common people have? Should people show more loyalty to their families or their country?

 Shakespeare’s earlier plays about civil war centred on the chaos that resulted when warring families all claimed the right to rule, not how the country should be governed. Coriolanus looks towards the future: not many years after Shakespeare’s lifetime Englandwas once again at war with itself, in revolt against a monarchy that liked to think it ruled by divine right. The questions about how we are ruled, as well as by whom, make the play as relevant now as it was then.

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8 Responses to Ralph Fiennes and Coriolanus on film

  1. jim meskimen says:

    This will be a great opportunity to see this play, which is not often put up. Also, I was unaware of Gerard Butler’s long career prior to “300”; just saw him in “Mrs. Brown” with Dame Judy and Billy Connelly-young Mr. Butler plays Connelly’s younger brother, must have been about 19 at the time. A fine performance. And I was thinking he was just a guy with the right set of Abs at the right time! Talent will out!

  2. Fascinating blog; as always. 🙂 You really should consider expanding on them with a view to a book. 🙂

  3. Sylvia Morris says:

    Thank you for this kind comment!

  4. Anne Lawley says:

    “Coriolanus” is usually one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I remember the first time I saw it (1973, I think) when a few of us sneaked off a boring accountancy course and drove to Stratford – my first visit to the RST! I can’t remember who played Coriolanus (although he was good), but all the ladies lost their hearts to Aufidius – played by Pat Stewart – not much hair, or clothing! I look forward to this version.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Hi there, this would have been 1972, part of the Romans season. Was it Ian Hogg playing Coriolanus? Must have been quite an evening!

      • Anne Lawley says:

        Yes, I knew you’d know. It was an excellent introduction to “serious” staged Shakespeare. My previous experience of live Shakespeare plays was a matinee production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the nightmare audience of school children – didn’t have quite the same atmosphere!

  5. Julia Rabbitts says:

    Very interesting comments, I first saw the play when the Beeb did it as part of their complete Shakespeare series. It came as a bit of a shock after Much Ado About Nothing and Romeo and Juliet (my previous Shakespeare experience) but made a powerful impression. I too remember Mr Butler from Mrs Brown and he’s a better actor than most people seem to think (it’s just he generally isn’t required to act just be the hunk!), it will be interesting to see him quoting Shakespeare. The reviews of this film all suggest the politics is there so watching it is going to be fascinating.

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