Considering Coriolanus – hero or villain? – ahead of Ralph Fiennes’ performance

7th June 2000

First published in the Independent, June 7 2000: The Nazis used Coriolanus to illustrate the dangers of democracy. But Laurence Olivier’s production found parallels with Mussolini. So, should Ralph Fiennes play him as a hero or a villain?

Swinburne said of it, “A loftier or a more perfect piece of man’s work was never done in all the world than this tragedy”. TS Eliot described it as “Shakespeare’s most assured success”. Henry Irving, the great 19th-century actor-manager, declared it “not worth a damn”. When Ralph Fiennes steps before the national critics at the Gainsborough Studios next week in the title role of Coriolanus, he will be taking on not only one of most demanding leads but also one of the most hotly fought-over plays in the Shakespeare canon.

The last of Shakespeare’s tragedies, written between 1605 and 1609, Coriolanus is the consummate star vehicle as well as the quintessential political play (the word “power” is used 28 times, 20 times more than in any other of his works). Caius Martius is the scourge of his country’s enemies and an object of envy, fear and worship at home, a one-man killing machine who “moves like an engine” and makes the ground shriek before his treading.

In Act I, he singlehandedly secures victory against the Volscians at Corioli, after which he is given the town’s name. The focus remains on him even when he’s absent: his domineering mother Volumnia happily rehearses his bloody exploits; his admiring main rival, the Volscian leader Aufidius, dreams of violent tussles together and thirsts for their next bout; and the plebeians, prompted by their machinating tribunes, fixate on his growing
power and vocal contempt for the commonality. Each of these parties is bound up in Coriolanus’s fate – a brutal one at the hands of the enemy he has defected to after furiously turning his back on an ungrateful Rome.

The justice, or otherwise, of his downfall is held up tantalisingly for our consideration. If Coriolanus can be summed up in a line, it is his own wish “to stand/ As if a man were author of himself/ And knew no other kin”. Call it pride, narcissism, or integrity – the degree to which this warrior’s absolute, self-determining nature has been deemed culpable has shifted according to the times in which the play has been revived. He has been portrayed variously as hero and villain, victim and criminal, enemy of the state, and its best friend.

The earliest recorded version of the play is a 1681 adaptation by the poet-playwright Nahum Tate called The Ingratitude of the Commonwealth; or, The Fall of Coriolanus. A Tory tract to combat anti-Catholic feeling at the time, its avowed moral was to “recommend submission and adherence to establisht lawful power”; it emphasised the unruly nature of the mob, and the rightful nature of Martius’s repressive behaviour. Another politically motivated adaptation, The Invader of His Country; or, The Fatal Resentment, by John Dennis, surfaced in 1718. This time, the purpose was Whig propaganda; the concern, the Stuart dynasty. Coriolanus was made to resemble James Stuart, the Old Pretender; his exile and the betrayal of his country were explicitly linked to his anti-populist attitudes.

It is during the last 100 years, though, that the battle has been most fiercely fought over different representations of the original text. The shift in approach was triggered by world events. The ideologically conservative tradition in 19th-century Britain took its cue from a spectacular interpretation staged by John Philip Kemble in 1789, which, in idealising Coriolanus and unflatteringly presenting the plebeians as a doltish mob, signalled Kemble’s hostility to the French Revolution.

With the rise of fascism and communism, Coriolanus became a focal point for right- and left-wing flagwaving. In Paris, in 1933, a production at the Comédie-Française provided fascist groups with an opportunity to demonstrate against the leftist Daladier government, and rioting even stopped a performance. In Germany, although a radio translation was banned by the Nazis, and its author exiled, the play was subsequently adopted as a schoolbook to illustrate the weakness of democracy and the need for a Führer figure. As a result, the play was banned by the Allies after the war until 1953. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, Coriolanus was viewed by Stalin’s propagandists as a superb lesson in the betrayal of the people by an individualistic leader. Brecht supplied the most stridently Marxist take, rewriting and editing the text to place all moral authority squarely in the hands of the plebeians.

How could postwar British theatre contend with such divergent readings? Interestingly, when Laurence Olivier reprised the role in 1959, 21 years after his triumphant portrayal at the Old Vic, he opted for a death-defying final coup that echoed Mussolini’s grisly meat-hook reckoning. Poised on a promontory 12 feet up, he toppled backwards, to be caught by the ankles and left dangling. Even though Olivier was credited with doing much to delve into the character’s troubled psyche, combining athleticism with the petulance of a disturbed child, his verdict on the man was: “A very straightforward, reactionary son of a so-and-so.”

According to Terry Hands, who directed a landmark production for the RSC in 1977 starring Alan Howard, as well as one 12 years later, with Charles Dance, after Olivier there still remained a need to rethink the part. “The problem was that after two world wars, it was hard to escape the shadow of Brecht. There was such a huge revulsion against the concept of a war leader. We tried to get out from that shadow, and suggest that maybe Coriolanus was a human being. There is very little sympathy in our culture for the problems of the military man when he becomes so successful that he is pushed into the political sphere.”

In Howard, he believes, he found someone who “combined sensitive and animal qualities. The individual warrior was there.” Rendering the particular voices of the citizens distinct too, the production occupied, according to one critic, “a position as carefully neutral as litmus paper”. “It’s up to us to maintain Shakespeare’s richness, not reduce it,” says Hands.

Jonathan Kent, who is directing the Almeida’s non-period specific Coriolanus in illuminating tandem to Fiennes’s Richard II, agrees. “What you have to do is ensure that every part of the society has its voice, so that, if possible, audiences’ sympathies keep shifting. It’s one of the most despairing and bleak of Shakespeare’s plays in that it suggests the appalling difficulty of forging a fair and proper society. It asks questions, but it doesn’t offer any answers. The difficult thing about Coriolanus, as a tragic hero, is that he has no real insight. He doesn’t learn anything. He has very few soliloquies. The ones he has don’t really advance his understanding of himself. His tragedy is that he dies unenlightened.”

At least, thanks to Kent’s view, he won’t die as a pawn in a game between right and left or as the victim of the kind of evasive post-modern tricksiness that has plagued a number of late-20th-century productions, including the last London revival, staged by and starring Steven Berkoff, which was a mishmash of Hollywood stereotypes and styles. The icy, romantic Fiennes follows in illustrious footsteps: Anthony Hopkins, Nicol Williamson, Ian McKellen, Michael Pennington, Kenneth Branagh and Toby Stephens have all had a crack at the role over the last 30 years. If he gets it right, it won’t just be his stage pre-eminence he’ll be confirming, but the play’s intrinsic value.

“I tell you, I long to be left alone. I don’t like being looked at,” Fiennes said in an interview recently. In theory, that’s just the kind of self-effacement essential to deliver a portrait of a man that you should neither love nor loathe, only want to stare at, intently.

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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