The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Friday, 14 February 2014

I Thought You Were My Boyfriend

Another BBC Shakespeare review from 2006. Re: Coriolanus I also highly recommend the Ralph Fiennes film version which is significantly shorter.


Absolutely brilliant.

I'm not sure whether I enjoyed it more than Julius Caesar, but it's definitely a contender for Shakespeare's best tragedy, if not his best play. I'm not knocking Othello or King Lear - they were the bee's knees - but Coriolanus is an altogether more prized part of apian anatomy. It is simply terrific. Compelling, engrossing, moving, exciting, extraordinarily intelligent and provocative. It is like so totally up there. Why it is not more highly regarded is a mystery. This is Shakespeare at his most accessible, and his most entertaining, it contains great drama, universal and timeless, yet is also extraordinarily rich and quite profound.

I said 'timeless'. It's a modern play, in its approach - it has a blissfully logical and straightforward plot, meticulously structured and balanced, with no coincidence, implausibility or people standing around spending Act 5 explaining the evening's proceedings to each other. It's also utterly naturalistic - there are no devices or conceits, no clowns or ghosts, no Gods or pixies. But what marks it out is that, even more than Julius Caesar (its closest antecedent) is that it is serious. The focus is on the reality of the situation and the characters and it never breaks that for an instant. It's so often the jokes that detract from his plays; those that are comprehensible can tend towards the asinine, and the terms of reference, construction, sensibility and brunt of humour tend to have dated badly; or, even if they have dated well they have nevertheless dated.

Coriolanus, though, does not feel dated at all. Its subject matter is of contemporary relevance; but it was of contemporary relevance in the 17th century when Willy-Shake scratched out the words with an inky quill and it's been of contemporary relevance ever since.

What it's about, you see, is politics. It raises questions about the utility of integrity, what makes a good ruler, and how should rulers be appointed and dismissed. It explores those ideas in great depth, but it doesn't offer easy answers. It's not that the Bardic rump is parked upon a figurative fence; it's because the point of the play is to draw people's attention to weaknesses of political systems, not advocate a particular solution.

In the past the play has been interpreted as an attack on democracy. It's not difficult to see why it might be taken that way. It makes it uncomfortably clear that democracy has weaknesses; it gives the power to appoint and dismiss to those least qualified to make an informed judgement, and it also makes it clear that democracy is invariably a sham, because the 'masses' are, in fact, open to manipulation by those who affect to serve. Democracy is shown to throw up craven careerists who do not lead but who instead equivocate, who fudge and whose decisions are essentially pandering; it is also shown to be no better than a dictatorship, with an oppressed working class mass doing just what the ruling class desires, as their masters pull their strings using the power of misinformation.

To put it in contemporary terms, it makes it clear that democracy leads not to fair government, but government by those who control the media; the spin-doctors, the disseminators, with the 'popular will' being fickle and a matter of simple stage-management. The public can be made to vote for the wrong guy; they can be made to throw out the right guy. Democracy does not allow for strong leadership or long-term decision-making; it encourages the sort of hypocritical duplicity which we associate with politicians today.

Sicinius and Brutus are, essentially, spin doctors - they are elected officials, ostensibly representing the plebs of Rome - hence they are called 'plebeians’ - and what they fear, more than anything else, is losing their status. Cause for all their talk of the 'people' they serve, what they love is power and the ability to control the 'people'.

This is probably the play has been popular with fascists and communists and other moustachioed extremists. But if they have appreciated it on that basis they have not only got the wrong end of the stick, but they have only grasped half of it. Because the play also presents the counterargument.

The plebeians’ jealous fear of dictatorship is, after all, justified. If someone comes to power but does not respect the wishes of the people, it will inevitably lead to disaster. Being able to lead people is not an admirable quality if that person intends to lead them over the nearest cliff. And, just as democracy throws up the spineless, so dictatorship promotes the rigid. In all the history of the world, there’s never been a 'liberal' dictator, they have always been nutty at one militant extreme of the political spectrum. They may make sure the trains run on time but they have people they don't agree with tied to the track.

It is that tension that, for me, makes this play so extraordinary. Because on the one side you have the plebeians, the democrats if you like – they’re neither socialist nor capitalist, and yet embody qualities of both - and on the other side you have the ruling class, the autocracy, represented by Coriolanus, Menenius and Cominius. They have achieved great feats of heroism - but are they the sort of men who should be in power?

The answer, is that neither system is ideal, and that the best you can hope for is a pick-and-mix approach whilst being acutely aware of the deficiencies and dangers of the systems. The sort of blind adherence to democracy as some sort of universal panacea that you find in some parts of the USA; that's what Coriolanus deconstructs, just as it equally deconstructs dictatorship. The danger is that as soon as any system is deemed to be unassailable, the people operating that system will start to use it for their own ends. The moral of Coriolanus is that no political system is beyond reproach, there’s no single right way but plenty of different wrong ways.

That's one thing that it's about. The struggle between the rulers and the ruled; between the workers and the factory owners, between the media barons and the establishment. It's not right versus left; it's the conflict between those born to greatness and those who have achieved greatness.

It's also about integrity. Because what makes the character of Coriolanus different from the other politicians is that he has integrity in spades. Some might argue his character is so inflexible he has very little else. But it is, bizarrely, his unstinting adherence to a code of honour that proves his downfall. Whilst the politicians are prepared to 'play the game' and indulge in publicity stunts, Coriolanus has no respect for the game - he thinks it is beneath him.

Is he arrogant? He's certainly not vain - he has absolutely no need of validation from others. But he has a certain self-confidence that others may perceive as arrogance. It's the combination of the fact that he has achieved great things but doesn't feel the need to talk them up in public - because great deeds are devalued if they are used to cheaply impress. He is rigidly moral and undoubtedly a courageous and inspiring leader, and a loving son, father and husband. He really has no bad qualities at all. He lacks humility, but in his case humility would be false modesty; he lacks the 'popular touch', but that too would be dishonest, and he has no desire to patronise.

How can I put this more clearly? In the play, in ancient Rome, any new tribune first has to be 'elected' by a process of being endorsed by the public. The plebeians put forward a sure-fire plan to get Coriolanus elected - he will turn up in the town square, give a pre-doctored speech about his great achievements in the field of battle, he will show them his many painful battle scars, and they public will respond with a vocal hat-hurling.

But Coriolanus isn't having any of it. He turns up at the town square - but refuses to show his scars. He basically tells the gathered crowd that they should elect him not because he is one of them but because he is better than them. He also refuses to go into detail about his great achievements, on the basis that when he fought for the good of Rome he fought for the good of Rome, not so he could use it for political capital later on.

Now compare that to today's popularity contests, where every politician has to appear on Richard & Judy's sofa, and come across as likeable, cheerful, full of false modesty. It's a crazy situation, because - as illustrated by the plebeians Sicinius and Brutus - the sort of the people who are good at smarming tend to be two-faced bastards.

And that's the second message of the play. A democratic system is incompatible with integrity. As Coriolanus himself finds out to his cost. In his public appearances he's not afraid to show how clever he is, he's not prepared to pretend that he listens to the Arctic Monkeys every morning. He finds the charade of seeking public approval for political office to be absurd and demeaning; worse, he finds it dishonourable and dishonest.

Which kind of begs the question - would someone like him get elected today? Would people vote for a politician who was prepared to say he wasn't interested in pop culture, that he was well-read and well-educated and was suited for power accordingly? I don't think so. We don't trust clever bastards, we think they're up to something. Instead we vote for clever bastards who are good at pretending to be average - the problem being that clever bastards who are good at pretending are even more likely to be up to something.

Anyway, before I drift off the point entirely, that's why I found the themes of this play so affecting and engrossing.

Couple of other vague thoughts. It's interesting to see how Shakey's attitude to the great outdoors changes... in his earlier plays it's a pastoral idyll to which people can escape from their troubles - As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, Two Gentlemen - but as he goes on it becomes a wilderness to which people are exiled - King Lear, Cymbeline, Coriolanus. Admittedly the 'exiled to the wilderness' aspect of Coriolanus is rather skipped over, but Bill makes up for it later on when he writes an entire play which consists of nothing but being 'exiled to the wilderness' - Timon of Athens, or, as I prefer to call it, Athens Tim.

Coriolanus dates from around the same time as Cymbeline, and like that play, and King Lear, it's source material is half ancient history and half legend. However, at the time Shakespeare probably thought he was basing Coriolanus on true events, though it turns out that there probably wasn't a Coriolanus in real life after all. But, just as in those plays, he makes no concessions to the historical setting - it is set in a kind of pseudo-17th century version of ancient Rome (in contrast to Julius Caesar, in which characters do talk in a kind of formal English version of latin).

Going back briefly to the democracy point - why was Shakespeare making this point at this time? I suspect it was because King Jimbo Aye was not proving popular at the time, what with Catholics abandoning mass for fireworks of mass destruction, and probably some groups of pitchfork-wielding yokels forming collectives. Particularly as there had been a famine around the time the play was written, which led to lots of disgruntled and revolting hordes asking for their grain back - just as happens at the beginning of Coriolanus. But the point the play makes is that we shouldn't listen to the yokels, that we should be grateful that we have a leader who is strong enough that he is prepared to be unpopular for the greater good. It's proauthoritarianism in that sense - but a form of benevolent and meritocractic authoritarianism.

The BBC production is very good; once again Elijah Moshinsky has made sure every scene is beautifully lit, though occasionally this makes for a rather static play because none of the actors can shift from their buttock-marks for fear of slipping into the shadows. It could do with a bit more strutting and fretting - it is a very, very, very talky play.

Not really any interesting Doctor Who names in the cast. Patsy Smart is a floater, alright, and Valentine Dyall turns up as 'Adrian'; not a very Valentine Dyally sort of character name, it has to be said. Joss Ackland is superb as Menenius, though I kept thinking of him as the Black Rabbit from Watership Down. IMDB tells me he is still alive, so well done Joss. But most exciting for me was John Burgess, who made a very accomplished Sicinius; Burgess being perhaps better known as Bing out of the Brookside.

Famous quotes? Not really any to speak of; the dialogue is great, but it's all heavily concerned with the events of the play and hence not easily quotable out of context . Not really any word-coinage either, I'm afraid.

As I mentioned, the plot is pleasingly straightforward, so the synopsis shouldn't take too long.

Act I

The citizens of Rome are revolting. There's been a famine, and they’re fed up of the ruling class - the patricians - eating all the pizza. They particularly don't like an aloof nobleman called Marcius. Although he has many acts of bravery to his name, they mock him, saying he probably only did them in order to please his mother, Volumnia.

Enter Menenius, a charismatic patrician who does his best to talk the rioters round. He explains their system of government - the patricians are the 'belly' of the body politic, whereas they, the commoners - the plebs - are merely the tootsies. The crowd are unimpressed. Marcius then turns up and remonstrates with the hoi polloi - he's just been to war, fighting for the good of Rome, whilst they all stayed at home and have never done a decent day's work in their arse-bound lives.

In fear of a full-scale riot, the tribunes accede to the crowd's demands - the decision being down to two opportunistic plebeian tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius. Marcius and Menenius are unimpressed.

News comes in that a rival state is about to attack Rome - the Volscians, led by the young noble Aufidius, who Marcius knows of battles passim. Marcius leaves to fight against the aggressors... and after he has gone, the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius criticise him for insulting the crowd and inciting a riot, and call him a 'glory seeker', but it's also clear that they are driven by envy. They think Marcius is getting too big for his boots - they suspect that soon he will be setting himself up above Cominius, the commander in general of Rome's forces...

Over in the Volscian camp, Aufidius hears the news that Marcius is leading the Roman forces against them (along with commanders Cominius and Lartius). Aufidius knows Marcius of battles passim, and boy is he freaked!

Back in Rome, Marcius's well-being is a source of concern for his wife, Virgilia, his son, Martius, and his mum, Volumnia. They receive news from the war - Marcius has already aroused the troops. Not individually, I mean. As a whole. He has made them into an aroused body of men. Ready for action. Pumped.

The battle between the Romans and Volscians reaches its height at the Volscian town of Corioli. Aufidius seems to have scarpered, and Marcius gives a terrific, Henry V-style speech goading his soldiers into attacking. His tactic works - Marcius is no cajoler, but he can make soldiers fight harder by insulting them. Marcius then goes berserk and dives into the carnage... he knows no fear!

...and then he emerges, defiant and covered in blood, having pretty much single-handedly defeated the Volscians.

Lartius praises Marcius' courage and helps him back to camp as their forces capture Corioli. Marcius is presented to Cominius, the Roman general (who had received reports of Marcius' death). Cominius announces that they will offer to return Corioli to the Volscians in return for a peace settlement. Marcius objects strongly to this - and goes after the Volscians, intent on killing the invidious Aufidius. Marcius encounters Aufidius on the battlefield, but just as Marcius is about to deliver the coup de mace more Volscians arrive.

Still caked in blood, Marcius returns the Roman camp - where Cominius thanks him once again for his contribution to the war. Marcius says he does not seek reward - he was only doing his duty, like Andy McNab in Bravo Two Zero - but Cominius is having none of it. He says that from this day forth Marcius will be called CORIOLANUS, in memory of his great victory at Corioli (where he made the Volscians shit themselves, hence the 'anus'). As Coriol-anus pops off-stage to wipe off the entrails and gore, Aufidius licks his wounds in the Volscian camp - they have agreed to the peace treaty in exchange for Corioli - and Aufidius swears to wreak his revenge on Marcius.

Act II

(Bear in mind that first act is pretty full-on and action-packed - things calm down from now on! And Marcius will now be called Coriolanus)

Brutus and Sicinius learn from Menenius that Coriolanus is on his way home from the war. Volumnia hears about her son's deeds with Aufidius and greets him tearfully upon his victorious entrance, and suggests that he do her proud by running for consul. Brutus and Sicinius observe this and snidely remark that Coriolanus is at heart a mummy's boy. They then say that the people might approve of Coriolanus becoming consul in the short term but that Coriolanus being who he is, he's bound to rub ‘em up the wrong way before long.

Coriolanus is brought before the senate for his 'consul' interview, but when they ask him to list his skills and attributes, he answers:

CORIOLANUS: I had rather have my wounds to heal again than hear say how I got them.

And when they start talking up his achievements, Coriolanus again takes offence:

CORIOLANUS: I had rather have one scratch my head i' the sun when the alarum were struck than idly sit to hear my nothings monster'd.

He refuses to be hyped nor to parp his own kazoo, his reputation should speak for itself. He then leaves the room, as Cominus petitions on his behalf, with Menenius also waving his flag. The patrician senators agree enthusiastically to Coriolanus' appointment, but upon his return the plebeian senators Sicinius and Brutus point out that the people may not be so keen and may need persuading:

SICINIUS: Sir, the people must have their voices; neither will they bate one jot of ceremony.

They advise Cori go before them in a 'humility' robe, proclaim his achievements and display his scars - this will surely impress the crowds and make them want him as their consul. Coriolanus reluctantly consents to this scheme.

CORIOLANUS: To brag unto them, thus I did, and thus; show them the unaching scars which I should hide, as if I had received them for the hire of their breath only.

And so Coriolanus is brought before the citizens of Rome at the forum, wearing a 'gown of humility'. Coriolanus basically just goes through the motions of talking to the people - disgruntled and with a visible lack of enthusiasm. Kind of like Gordon Brown.

CORIOLANUS: You know the cause of my standing here.

CITIZEN: We do sir; tell us what hath brought you to't.

CORIOLANUS: Mine own desert. (i.e. I deserve to be a consul)

CITIZEN: Your own desert!

CORIOLANUS: Ay. But not mine own desire. (i.e. I have no interest in this 'seeking public approval' pantomime, I've been put up it, and will go along with it, but I'm not going to pretend to enjoy it)

CITIZEN: How not your own desire?

CORIOLANUS: Twas never my desire yet to trouble the poor with begging.

CITIZEN: You must think, if we give you anything, we hope to gain by you.

CORIOLANUS: Well then, I pray, the price o' the consulship?

CITIZEN: The price is to ask it kindly.

CORIOLANUS: Kindly! I pray, let me ha't. I have wounds to show you, which shall be yours in private.

And so it goes on. Coriolanus refuses to play the game. He won't show his wounds. He won't flatter himself. He's not going to pretend to be something he isn't just to get elected. And even when they do vote him in, he says:

CORIOLANUS: Why, in this woolvish toge should I stand here? To beg of Hob and Dick, that do appear, their needless vouches?

The tribunes approve Coriolanus as consul, and he leaves... and Sicinius and Brutus appear in the forum, and begin to spread dissent amongst the crowd. 'He didn't seem very grateful to us for voting for him'. 'He seemed a bit surly and distant'. 'Don't you think he's looking tired?' And they bring up the fact that he was supposed to display his wounds, and refused to do it publicly - so maybe he doesn't actually have any war wounds at all....?

It's a great little scene this - it shows, like the Anthony scene in Julius Caesar, how the public mood can be easily changed, just as dislodging a few well-chosen pebbles can cause an avalanche.

Act III, and Coriolanus learns that his arch-foe Aufidius has been seen skulking around Antium. Coriolanus is about to take his place in the senate when Brutus and Sicinius arrive and with unalloyed delight deliver the bad news; the people have changed their mind and will riot if Coriolanus is made a consul.

Coriolanus accuses Brutus and Sicinius of plotting against him and working against the will of the patricians. He refutes the idea that the plebeian classes should be able to over-rule decisions made by the nobility - he compares it to letting the crows peck at the eagles. In his impeachment hearing, Coriolanus goes too far - denigrating the whole political system of Rome that gives beggars a say in the affairs of the nobility and accuses Brutus and Sicinius of being liars and hypocrites. And, of course, he is right - the point is that Coriolanus has very high standards, he has integrity, he has arrogance, and considers the whole 'democratic process' a risible joke.

Brutus and Sicinius accuse Coriolanus of treason and stir up the people to the point of riot, making them bay for Coriolanus' blood. Where before they were spin doctors, advising Coriolanus on how to get elected, now they are twisting and conniving to blacken his name and turn the working people against him.

In fear of the rioters, the patricians once again accede to their demands. Once again we are shown the flaw with democracy; it makes leaders powerless and gives power to those who control the spread of rumour i.e. THE MEDIA.

Coriolanus is livid. He offers to take on the plebs, one-by-one, and massacre some sense into them. As the citizens scream 'No!' at the thought of Coriolanus being made a consul, Menenius makes a last-ditch attempt to win them over, reminding them of the many times Coriolanus served his nation. Whipped up into a frenzy and hungry for blood, the citizens refuse to listen to reason.

Coriolanus is then visited by his mother, who tries to advise him on how to win over the people - he should go back to the tribunes and repent everything he said and beg for forgiveness. That isn't the Coriolanus way, though...and even when he is brought before the people, Coriolanus refuses to apologise. So he is banished from the city.

Act IV begins with Coriolanus bidding his goodbyes to his wife and his mother. After Coriolanus has gone, his mother turns on the tribunes who brought about his downfall, Brutus and Sicinius.

Meanwhile the Volscians discover that Coriolanus has been banished - and with the one person who could stop them out of the way, they have an opportunity to strike against Rome!

Coriolanus arrives in Antium, looking for Aufidius. His reasoning is that he has been betrayed by his own people, so he has no option but to betray them and join the enemy camp. He is brought before Aufidius and tells him. 'Either kill me now, or let me join you in your fight against those gits in Rome'.

This is where it gets a little bit gay, because Aufidius is extremely enthusiastic about the idea of having Coriolanus fight alongside him. A little over-enthusiastic; we know that he hates Coriolanus, so perhaps he is overcompensating. Or protesteth too much. But nevertheless it all gets really very homoerotic.

AUFIDIUS: O Marcius, Marcius! Each word hast thou spoke hath weeded from my heart a root of ancient envy... let me twine mine arms about that body... knou thou first, I loved the maid I married, never man sigh'd truer breath, but that I see thee here, thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart than when I first my wedded mistress saw bestride my threshold! Why, thou Mars! Thou art so comely in tight trousers, take me big boy take me now...

Back in Rome, the news arrives that Coriolanus has joined with Aufidius and the villainous Volscians. Brutus and Sicinius realise their whole 'let's banish Coriolanus' plan has backfired in their stupid faces. Learning that Coriolanus will now be fighting against them, the tribunes of Rome and the citizens of Rome all argue about whose fault it is. Nobody is prepared to take responsibility; the people blame the patricians for banishing Coriolanus, while the patricians blame the people for demanding that Coriolanus be banished...

Seeing which way the wind is blowing, Brutus and Sicinius rapidly make holiday plans.

With Coriolanus on board, the Volscian forces advance on Rome... but in a quiet moment Aufidius reveals his cunning gay plan. He will take advantage of Coriolanus' popularity with the men and his skills as a leader and a general while it suits him... but as soon as they have defeated Rome, he will have Coriolanus killed. Dead!

This is rather neat, because it echoes Rome's behaviour earlier - Coriolanus is once again about to be betrayed because people fear his abilities as a leader of men...

Act 5. Coriolanus receives a messenger from Rome begging an audience. He sends the messenger away with a flea in his ear. The messenger delivers the flea back to Rome, where it is decided that Menenius should have one last go at begging Coriolanus to return to the Roman side.

Coriolanus tells Menenius to f*ck off back home to Rome, saying he has disowned the people of Rome, including his wife, mother and son:

CORIOLANUS: Wife, mother, child, I know not. My affairs are servanted to others: though I owe my revenge properly, my remission lies in Volscian breasts. That we have been familiar, ingrate forgetfulness shall poison, rather than pity note how much. Therefore, be gone. Mine ears against your suits are stronger than your gates against my force! SO F*CK OFF BACK TO ROME!

Menenius has no choice but to call Coriolanus' bluff - and he sends Coriolanus' wife, mother and son to go and talk to him in a last-ditch attempt to make him call off his attack on Rome.

Now this scene does go on a bit. Volumnia talks non-stop at Coriolanus for a good 15 minutes - and eventually he breaks down and cracks, and decides his loyalty should be to his family first and foremost and he should forgive the Romans who had him banished. He can’t bring himself to order an attack which will lead to his mother’s death... and so he tells Aufidius to call off the attack on Rome and sue for peace.

The people of Rome declare their undying gratitude to Coriolanus, the prodigal son and all that, and celebrate. However the Volscians are not so chuffed and to say Aufidius is cheesed off would be an understatement. Coriolanus has let him down, and once again humiliated him and deprived him of glory.

Coriolanus returns to Atrium to meet with Aufidius and the Volscian Lords. He admits that he called off the attack on Rome, but only in return for a peace treaty which is a very good deal for the Volscians. He’s done his best.

Aufidius is not exactly Coriolanus' number one fan. He screams 'traitor' at him and reminds him that his name, Coriolanus, is a reminder of how he defeated the Volscians. He calls Coriolanus a coward, for throwing away a victory against the Romans simply because of his 'nurses' tears'.

Egged on by Aufidius, the Volscian mob begin to rage against Coriolanus - a direct echo of how the Roman mob were turned against him earlier - shouting that he should die for his betrayal. The Volscian Lords surround Coriolanus but it is Aufidius who delivers the fatal blow, sticking a dirk when the sun don't ever shine.

And that's it. Coriolanus is given a 'noble burial' but his tragedy has only ever been to try to find an honourable course, betrayed at every turn by his fellow countrymen, his leaders, his family and his boyfriend. His tragedy is that he’s a man with integrity caught up in a system where integrity is not a strength but a flaw.

Next up: The nights are colder now, maybe I should close the door, and anyway the snow has covered all your footsteps and I can follow you no more... The Winter's Tale

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