Tri-Coriolanus Smackdown

The Contenders:

Tom Hiddleston  – Donmar Warehouse 2014

Alan Howard – BBC 1984

Ralph Fiennes –Fiennes 2011

The Reviews:


Do I really have to say any more about this production?  Go look at my last three weeks worth of posts.



What is the meaning of tragedy in drama?  It necessarily involves the downfall (and usually death) of a main character (classically a powerful one, but that has evolved a bit over the centuries), but does that character have to evoke at least some empathy in the viewer in order for the events of the play to be truly tragic?  Sauron is a powerful main character who is cathartically destroyed at the end of Lord of the Rings, but I do not think anyone would classify his death as tragic.  The reason I ask is that I found it exceedingly hard to have any empathy at all for the main character in the 1984 BBC production of Coriolanus.  Is it tragedy if you think  the “tragic” figure deserves it?

Coriolanus, as portrayed by Alan Howard in this version, is really a prick.  He is more proud than either Hiddleston’s or Fiennes’s  Coriolanus, more contemptuous of anyone else (even his mother), and overall,  a really vile character.  His petitioning of the Plebs for their ballots is so confrontational that I cannot see how they gave him any at all.  It does make their reversal of the acceptance of him as Consul a bit more believable, but raises the question of why they accepted him in the first place.  Howard’s anger at their rejection is that of a man who feels justified in his contempt.  He knows why they have rejected him, and he is furious, but not surprised. Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is angry, to be sure — it is just part of the character — but his seems more of a hurt, bewildered anger; as dismissive as he is of the Plebs, he truly does not seem to understand  why they have turned on him.  There is more internalized pride in Howard’s Coriolanus; he is less the tool of his mother’s ambition.  Is it truer to the text than either the Donmar or the Fiennes productions?  Maybe.  But it makes for very one-dimensional character and a more difficult viewing experience.

Volumnia in this version is softer, less indomitable, more given to weeping. This production places the  burden of Coriolanus’s downfall squarely on him.  He is an angry, stubborn, proud man, more driven by his own arrogance and less by his mother’s ambition.  She is proud of him, but is less manipulative and determined.  Volumnia still knows how to push his buttons, but she uses it more as a means of trying to control his ruthless personality and less as way of bending him to her will.  This Coriolanus is not a creature of her creation; he is a dangerous man she is desperately trying to control.

Other characters in this production are similarly grim and unsympathetic.  Menenius is stripped of his humor  — the speech in which he refers to himself as a humorous patrician is entirely cut.  He is more familiar with Brutus and Sicinius as well, although the two of them remain properly sneaky and calculating.  Aufidius is threateningly intense; his speech when Coriolanus reveals himself in Antium is delivered with a violent intimacy that is almost frightening — there is no romance implied here at all.

The one bright spot here is Coriolanus’s relationship with Virgilia.  I found it more believable than the one portrayed at the Donmar, and less dysfunctional than that in Fiennes  movie.  Howard’s Coriolanus expresses more affection toward her; I could actually see them as a couple.

I found this production difficult to watch, almost as much a slog as reading the play was. The tone was somber (I think every costume was black) and the staging was very static; there was  very little motion. The camera was focused so tightly on the actor’s heads that there was no sense of dynamism or interaction between the characters.  I need to see Aufidius’s face as Coriolanus is betraying him, see the reactions of other characters to the speaker, read their body language.  That was just not possible in this production. Even the battle scenes were dull.  It was passionless, for all the shouting.  I just did not believe these actors; they seemed like they were just reciting the lines  (which they did quite clearly; there were captions available but I did not need them at all.)  It just felt like stereotypical “Shakespearean” emoting; they did not embody the characters at all.  I’m sure they were working with a limited budget, but the Domnar managed to put on a more dynamic production with a bare stage and a bunch of chairs.

There were some cuts in the text — I’m not sure any modern productions of any of the plays keep everything — and some odd rearrangements of some scenes.  Pretty much all interactions with ordinary Volscis were cut, which made for some abrupt transitions. Some of the ending was cut as well, but not as much as at the Domnar.  The ending makes a big difference — Aufidius here is a pissed off general and not a jealous lover.  But still, in the end, it is he who kills Coriolanus, not the crowd of Volscian conspirators depicted in the text.

On the purely technical front, the video was a bit blurry, the lighting a bit too harsh.  In some scenes there was too much contrast, in others, especially the battle scenes, there was hardly any light at all.  And — I never thought I would say this — they was not enough blood.  Coriolanus covered in blood is an important part of this play; I need to see him covered in blood, damnit! I just do not believe he is seriously wounded, or that Aufidius would not recognize him upon meeting him later.

All in all, this is the type of Shakespearean production I rail against.  These are the videos that put people off of Shakespeare.  I was initially excited to learn that the same production company had done all the plays,  After viewing this one, I do not think I will bother with any of the others.



Ralph Fiennes’s  modern update of Coriolanus is last up on the bill.  The film is an interesting piece, set in the present day of a place “calling itself Rome”.   It is an inventive treatment, which, unfortunately, just does not work.

The downfall of this movie is, alas, the language of Shakespeare.  In the mouths of these actors, in this setting, it just seems too incongruous, too anachronistic to be believed. It completely took me out of the movie.  The language just seems to get in the way of the acting  — I really do not know who these people are.  It seems like they are not even speaking English at times.  I hear the words, but they just do not make sense in some scenes.  These are not bad actors; it just isn’t working.

Maybe it would have worked better if Fiennes and scriptwriter John Logan had ditched the Shakespeare entirely and just modernized the language. They have already cut out and changed so much that the credits read based on the play by William Shakespeare; why not go all the way?  They cut some scenes, rearranged others, took dialog away from some characters and put it in others’ mouths. As far as I can tell, they even invented an interrogation scene at the beginning, complete with Shakespearean-style dialog. If you are going to change it that much, why bother keeping any of it?

I had a very hard time getting handle on Fiennes’s Coriolanus.  Initially, he seems more weary, more haunted, less angry.  This Coriolanus is a very reluctant politician who is eventually burned by scandal.  He is just not suited to the role of politician.  He IS a proud man, but a man wronged by manipulative, corrupt politicians.  The speech in which he shouts “I banish you!” is that of a man pushed beyond his patience. (This is really shallow, but I HAVE to comment, here — this speech is SO DAMN SPITTY!  Hiddleston was bad enough with his spitting and his dripping nose, but this was much, much worse.  I do not like spit or snot, so, ew)

But then, in the end when his family comes to entreat him outside Rome, he is sarcastic and contemptuous of them. I know he is supposed to have been changed by his experiences, but he just seems too different. I really can’t see WHY he has a change of heart in this scene; he does not seem moved, but is suddenly sobbing in his mother’s embrace.  And later, when meeting with the Volscis after the peace is made, he pretty much invites his own murder.  So, a difficult man to figure out.

Unfortunately, I have seen How to Train Your Dragon too many times to be objective about Gerard Butler with that accent.  It was like watching an evil Stoic the Vast.  There is an air of menace about him, to be sure. The movie opens with him sharpening the knife that he eventually will use to kill Coriolanus,  They did cut the more interesting parts of Aufidius’s Act IV scene V speech, but it was followed by an oddly intimate barbering scene, which seemed peculiar at the time, but  made sense with a later depiction of the Volsci soldiers styling themselves after Coriolanus  This Aufidius seems more chagrined and regretful of the power and place he has ceded to Coriolanus.  He is angry about Coriolanus’s perceived betrayal, and seeks revenge.  Aufidius instigates the killing, but allows his co-conspirators to attack, only stepping in to deliver the final blow.  Again, it is the act of a betrayed comrade, not a jealous lover.

Perhaps the most fully realized character is Brian Cox’s Menenius.  He is more fleshed out than in the BBC  production, and not so grim and humorless.  He is believable as a skilled politician, who is, unfortunately, so beaten down and discouraged by the end that he commits suicide. An interesting choice; not necessarily one that I agree with.

Volumnia and Virgilia are among the least developed characters.  There is an odd, almost inappropriate, closeness between Volumnia and her son; Virgilia seems like an intruder on their most intimate moments.  Virgilia for her part seems almost afraid of her husband, and is definitely on the outside of his primary relationship, which is with his mother.  Yet for all that perceived closeness, Coriolanus is so very cold to his mother when she comes to plead with him.  And her pleading is confrontational as well.  She is not appealing to him; she is trying to provoke him into changing his mind. Very odd.

The overall tone of the movie was intense, with brutal, bloody battle scenes, though not as graphic as I feared; I am a squeamish wimp about movie gore, and it really didn’t bother me.

The unrest depicted among the Plebs was more realistic and immediate than in either of the other productions. and the citizens given more credit,  There is organized protest and subversion, citizen agitators that stir up the populace.  The crowd’s reversal of Coriolanus’s election to Consul is very believable in this production — the agitators as well as the Tribunes stir them up.  They are still led somewhat, but not as much as in the other versions.  Coriolanus’s fall from  grace makes the most sense here.  It is skillfully done, framed as a trumped up political scandal subsequent to the crowd unrest.  Well done, Brutus and Sicinius!  I do like the device of giving some of the dialog in this sequence to newscasters. it makes those passages seem less clunky and gets the point across nicely while also allowing us to observe the reactions of other characters who are not in those particular scenes.

I do not know where the movie was filmed, but the scenery is appropriately bleak.  (My notes say “Grim, grim, grim.” here.)  Exteriors truly do look like a country at war; interiors are stark and uncomfortable.

There are other quibbles I have here.  Why is Volumnia uniformed in some scenes  — who is she and what is her relationship to the military?  Why have Valeria always tagging along with Volumnia and Virgilia when she is not identified or even allowed to speak? (Her lines are given to Menenius.) For the most part, with the exception of Menenius, I really didn’t feel like I KNEW these characters at the end of the movie.  A lot of the play was cut; perhaps it was simply too much.  It just does not make sense in some places. There is so much this movie does RIGHT; I really wish I could get past what it does wrong.

I wanted to like this movie; I really did.  With Howard running a far distant third, I went into this anxious to prove I was not another Hiddleston fangirl. I AM a fan of Tom Hiddleston (though, truth be told, I am more of a Bitch than a Stoner, though I am really not enough of a fanatic to truly count as either), but in this case, it is simply a case of his being the superior production and performer.

Verdict:  Hiddleston wins, hands down.




Much Ado About Whedon


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One Response to Tri-Coriolanus Smackdown

  1. Pingback: A Performance of Macbeth | That Shakespeare Chick

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