The Shakespeare gang re-united for a live screening of the RSC’s Coriolanus at the charming Everyman cinema in Angel. We couldn’t find a performance of this play back in 2011 as the Ralph Fiennes film was due to come out over the summer. So, we put it in ourselves, in the beer garden of a pub in Edinburgh during a trip to the festival.
The acting tonight was rather more professional, although the play got off to a creaky start when the projection froze. Worse still, the action we should have been watching was already pretty dull.
You see, I have friends who don’t go to the theatre because they can’t suspend their disbelief and go along with the make-believe. At some fundamental level, they can’t get over the fact that they are watching other grown-ups pretending.
For the first (…what felt like…) twenty minutes of Coriolanus, I had a measure of sympathy for these otherwise misguided fools. The opening scenes are supposed to establish that Coriolanus is a martial man of individual bravery and tactical shrewdness.
These facts could have been asserted in one efficient swoop. Instead we had several noisy but frankly rather silly-looking battle scenes and a playground fight between Coriolanus and his nemesis Tullus Aufidius. As the ‘action’ dragged on I half-expected the minor characters to gather in a circle and start chanting ‘Oggy! Oggy! Oggy! Oi! Oi! Oi!”
Once Coriolanus had won both the battle and the war, we engage with the real drama of the play: his tortured relationships with his mother and his people. To his mother, he is utterly obedient. To his subjects, he is utterly arrogant. Any show of in front of the populace is, in his mind, to allow “The crows to peck the eagles.”
Not that this production gives the masses much credit either, comparing their foolishness in submitting to Coriolanus’ forced flattery with the presidential victory of Donald Trump. “What? You chose this man?” asks one of the female tribunes, aghast at their stupidity and venality.
It the infinitely elastic applicability of Shakespeare which has ensured his writing has been cherished for so long. This production explores the familiar themes of the contradictions of democracy and strong leadership, alongside Coriolanus’ maternal complexities in a fairly even-handed manner.
Going much further than any other production I’ve seen (or read in a pub car-park) was the focus on the homo-erotic relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius. Their re-union and reconciliation was a moment of openly charged mutual admiration and sweaty physical intimacy.
As Billington points out, Aufidius engages in “one of the most violently sexual passages in all Shakespeare”, describing his “dreams of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me” in which they “fist each other’s throats”.
The power of this sequence and my faith in the production as a whole was, however, under-cut by the preceding scene featuring a crudely-drawn camp character flittering about and generally acting the nelly. So, apart from the massively homophobic bit, this was a production with a very modern sense of the characters’ fluid sexuality.
As ever with Shakespeare, a new era unearths new layers of meaning and exploration.