When it comes to Shakespeare, I sometimes feel that over the years I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly in the good, the bad and the ugly – on stage and screen.
Shakespeare done well lifts you up with its sheer brilliance, but I’ve also sat through far too much lazy thigh slapping, hey nonny nonnies and unlikely mix-ups involving twins.
With this is mind I thought it was time to expand my Shakespeare-watching with a play I haven’t seen before, or if I have it was so long ago I’ve now forgotten it (though with my aged memory it’s perfectly possible I actually saw it at the Globe Theatre in the 17th century).
Set in the present day, Rome is continually at war with neighbouring state Volsci – and because of the resultant grain shortages and crackdowns on civil liberties, it is also beset by food riots and unrest. The people are angry particularly at brilliant but uncaring general Caius Martius (Ralph Fiennes).
His mortal enemy is Tullus Aufidius, warlord and commander of Volsci’s armed forces (a gritty performance from Gerard Butler. It’s good to see him showing us what he can really do with a decent script, even if he did have to go back 400 years for it).
Martius leads another Roman assault on Volsci which results in them taking the Volscian city of Corioles and ends with a brutal one-on-one fight with Aufidius. In honour of his victory at taking Corioles, Rome bestows on Martius the agnomen Coriolanus (the Romans were well known for inventing agnomens, nickname-type extra names given as honours – I secretly give my children agnomens too though they probably owe more to Chaucer than Shakespeare).
Newly respected and admired by the plebs, the victorious Coriolanus runs for Senate at his mother’s urging. However two officials (tribunes) conspire to rabble-rouse the people, and very quickly their admiration turns to anger. Coriolanus responds with contempt and leaves the city saying he is actually banishing Rome as there “is a world elsewhere”.
Coriolanus travels to Volsci and Aufidius. Bald-headed and smooth-chinned, banished from Rome, he walks away from the city and is picked up by a truck. By the time he’s dropped off at Aufidius’s stronghold, his hair and beard have grown so much he looks like Tom Hanks in Castaway.
Of course in true Shakespearean style, poor Aufidius completely fails to recognise Coriolanus with his new hair. Seriously why is everyone in Shakespeare’s plays face-blind? HE LOOKS LIKE RALPH FEINNES WITH A BEARD AND LONG HAIR, PEOPLE.
Naturally it ends in blood. Aufidius’s men surround Coriolanus on an empty road in the middle of a flat expanse of nowhere and bring him down with their knives. Aufidius then finishes him off, appropriately for their bromance hugging Coriolanus as the knife goes in, killing him. And though writings about two mortal enemies who can’t exist without the other can be a bit predictable, most of them came rather later and in this case Aufidius’s and Coriolanus’s lives and reasons for living and fighting are too deeply intertwined.
Coriolanus boasts universally excellent performances, and taut direction from Fiennes in his directorial debut. And it’s just two hours! Frankly if Shakespeare plays – which usually come in at three hours plus (plus-plus in some cases) – can be pruned so drastically and still make total sense then there is no excuse for other films to drag on and on and on. It’s really pacy, and the only downside to this is when it becomes slightly unbelievable how quickly the people of Rome turn against him. However this is a small price to pay for not developing a DVT from sitting too long listening to rhyming couplets by British national treasures. The non-stagey, highly realistic setting (it was filmed in previously wartorn Belgrade), also makes it really easy to understand.
So be prepared for some seriously bloody violence (it is really violent, and really bloody), but please don’t let that put you off. And afterwards you can watch your friends’ faces fall as you come out with “agnomen” on a triple word score in Scrabble (you probably won’t get many points but treat yourself to a hobnob* as you watch them become green-eyed* in amazement*, and disheartened* at their own lacklustre* performance ). *All words invented by Shakespeare, yes even hobnob.