A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

“Coriolanus” is a definitive production of  Shakespeare’s tragedy of the hero who wins glory for Rome and for himself, only to be brought down by his own pride and anger.  Coriolanus is a difficult role, a character who can be unsympathetic, whose arrogance must be balanced with his courage and honesty.  A natural patrician, he has nothing but disdain for the working men of Rome, cowards who cannot understand his dedication to bravery in battle, who just want to get on with their trades, but who are easily swayed by their wily government representatives, the Tribunes.  One moment the crowd cheers him for winning a war only to condemn him the next because he lacks humility.

 Ralph Fiennes convinces us of both the failings and the virtues of Coriolanus. With a wide range of vocal, facial and physical expressions, he is a master of the snarl as he confronts the mob, and of sensitivity as he tries to evade his mother’s demands that he seek public office.  He is soft-voiced, introspective and modest  as he squirms at the public adulation, standing tense and withdrawn into himself; as buttoned up as his non-period jacket.  When he displays his bravery, shouting as he attacks the town of Corioli and lunging into fierce swordplay with his rival and enemy Aufidius, we understand the adulation of the women of the town (described by a Tribune) for his heroics and “graceful posture.” His shoulders squared, his voice dripping with contempt, he rages against the plebeians to whom the Senate has denied rations of wheat because they refused to fight for Rome. The workers’ revenge is to vote against Coriolanus for the post of Consul, and egged on by the Tribunes, they chant for his banishment.

In Shakespeare’s fullest portrayal of a mother-son relationship, Barbara Jefford expertly interprets Volumnia, who has raised Coriolanus with one virtue only, to the exclusion of all others: bravery in battle.  She sends him to war at a tender age and she has gloried ever since in his courage, marked by the wounds he has received.  In her stance as she enacts how he behaves in battle, Ms. Jefford makes clear that Volumnia should like to have attained the glory herself, but being a woman she can only revel in her son’s acclimation, as he fulfills her fantasy (“fancy”).  As he returns triumphant from defeating the Volsces at Corioli and is honored with the name of Coriolanus, she is in ecstasy as she hails him as godlike.  In contrast, as crowds cheer and confetti rains down on him, Fiennes’ facial expression tells all: he wishes he were somewhere else. 

He doesn’t want her new career choice for him – that of Consul – but agrees to (literally) stand for the office, wearing a gown of humility and asking the people for their voices (votes).  His honesty with the plebes may be a fresh approach to seeking political office, as he reveals his low opinion of them, but it is hardly designed to win votes, then as now (See the movie “Bulworth”).

When they grant him another chance to address them, his mother takes over.  She coaches him, demonstrating exactly how he should play his part as she argues that “policy” can be just as effective in the market place as on the battlefield.  The text  suggests an Oedipal attachment, and Ms. Jefford makes the most of  it  in this scene.  Her hands move all over his body --  his arms, his legs – as she tells him, “ I am in this/ Your wife, your son, these Senators…” (Is this a Freudian slip?  Freud says Shakespeare invented the slip in a line of Portia’s to Bassanio in “The Merchant of Venice.”) In her first scene, Volumnia upbraids her daughter-in-law for fearing Coriolanus may be wounded: “If my son were my husband,” she says, she would prefer hearing of his bravery in battle to their making love in bed. To put an end to his mother’s “chiding,” Coriolanus agrees to again present himself as a humble petitioner for votes. But his temper and his arrogance defeat him, and he is banished from Rome.

 Wandering in the “world elsewhere,” he turns up in rags at the home of his sworn foe, Aufidius, who heads Rome’s enemies, the Volsces.  Here Fiennes’ stance and voice vary again, as he portrays both the abject beggar and, under the rags, the noble hero.  In revenge against those who banished him, he will join with Aufidius in attacking Rome.  Linus Roache as the Volscian leader delivers the third outstanding performance in this production.  Both his admiration for and his envy of Coriolanus are evident as he welcomes his former foe, yet reveals that Aufidius is not a man to be trusted.

Volumnia’s longest and most important speech is her plea to Coriolanus not to invade Rome but to broker with the Volscians a mutual peace with honor. Although at first he is adamant, during her 70-line speech Fiennes perceptively changes as we see the effect she is having upon him, until finally, weeping, he agrees not to invade Rome.  The stage direction to take her hand is Shakespeare’s, but the way Fiennes does it is his own, as he, looking away, turns his body and reaches for her hand as she is departing, believing her plea has failed. Falling to the floor may be excessive, but Fiennes brings it off as he tells her, “You have won a happy victory to Rome/ But for your son – believe it: O believe it--/ Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,/If not most mortal [fatal] to him.”

It remains only for the Volscians to declare him a traitor, just as the Romans did earlier.  Denied a final fight with Aufidius in which Coriolanus could display his courage, he is pinioned by Volsces, as Aufidius, in a rage, stabs him to death. 

Jonathan Kent as director deserves much credit, for this is a difficult play to stage.  His “Shakespeare full out” approach here is a welcome change from the many gimmicky, mumbling productions prevalent today, where actors, as at the new Globe, stress the wrong word in a line, disregarding the iambic pentameter and revealing that they themselves do not understand what they are saying.    Here, almost all the speeches, except by Bernard Gallagher, are clear and understandable, well spoken and preserving the rhythm and sense of the lines.

 The many stage effects are appropriate on this huge stage, its many entrances and exits inventively used. Openings in the back brick wall serve as windows and doors, entrances are by stairs or other openings at either side, and there is a balcony-like upper stage.  A long cleft in the center of the brick wall is ingeniously used, for thunder and flames in the battle scene, or a mirror of the swordplay with Aufidius.  A large opaque glass square in the middle of the stage floor is lit from below for interior scenes.  At stage right, a large metal curtain clangs down as the gates of Corioli, or opened, represents an arch for a triumphal  entry.

Shakespeare’s audience would have loved the staging of the battle at Corioli,  with explosions, smoke, fire, and lamentations, not to mention the hero, alone, rushing through the city gates that ring shut behind him.  Another high point is the extended sword fight between Coriolanus and Aufidius, using not only swords, but arms, legs, and heads as well  The costumes are non-period, with uniforms differentiated by colors, dark green for the Romans, red for the Volsces.  The Roman Senators drape a part-toga shawl over their suits, very much like the single contemporary illustration we have of a Shakespeare play – the Roman “Titus Andronicus” (Reproduced in my book, Pageantry on the Shakespearean Stage.)  There is no set and props are limited to stools and one table.