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“I – Banish – You!” The 1980s BBC Coriolanus.

February 10, 2017


According to one set of programme notes, director Elijah Moshinsky wished to inject “an undercurrent of homoeroticism” into this fight scene between Caius Marcius (not yet Coriolanus) and Aufidius.   What we get, I think, is not so much an “undercurrent” as a veritable tsunami of passionate same-sex desire.

No man in Shakespeare “wants” another man quite as much as Tullus Aufidius “wants” Caius Marcius.  And just behind Aufidius’s desire for Marcius, comes Marcius’ desire for Aufidius.  Moshinsky not only stages a sweaty naked embrace of a fight between the pair, but allows their intimacy to express itself even when they’re not together.   The look in Alan Howard’s eye when he asks if Aufidius “said anything about me” is priceless.

Howard had been an acclaimed stage Coriolanus several years before this version was filmed and his familiarity with the role is obvious.  His timing of the phrase “I – banish – you” is astonishing as he turns his back on plebian-infected Rome.  This is a man who would rather face certain death in battle than have a polite conversation with a pleb.  Indeed, Alan Howard manages to be hilariously vulnerable and strangely moving when in coarse garb trying to solicit the favour of the plebians.  He seems emaciated and frankly terrified and his ambiguous words of entreaty are not so much laconic or dismissive as bewildered and desperate.

It is notable that neither the plebs nor their tribunes are given “working class” accents in this play.  Instead, they speak as fair as the patricians.   And given the austerity of patrician dress in this production, the physical distinction between patrician and pleb seems uncertain, and the class divide rather more arbitrary.   This has the effect of making Coriolanus’ contempt for the plebs all the more terrifying.  He does not really despise plebs for their dirty faces, but rather for something they are that is so fundamental that it can’t even be visualised.

Howard is especially good at demonstrating Coriolanus’ utter repugnance of praise. Coriolanus regards praise as appropriation.  To be applauded for something is to be appropriated.  Like the Duke of Wellington (allegedly) Coriolanus believes that being cheered by the lower orders is a species of impertinence.  If you allow plebs to cheer, you also allow them to jeer – if you allow them to express a laudatory opinion you allow them to express a damning opinion.   To solicit applause is therefore to confess and solicit weakness.

Also note Irene Worth’s Volumnia.  Quieter and less physically overwhelming than many Volumnias, she manages to inject a note of precision into the play.  She is the power that mediates between Coriolanus and the rest of the world.   She who gave him birth is the only person who can really translate back and forth and force him to make some kind of accommodation with the rest of the human race.

The staging of this play is interesting.  Rather like the BBC Antony and Cleopatra, it is set not in classical dress, but in a Jacobean imagining of republican austerity.  The version of early seventeenth-century dress that is chosen is very dark and very severe.  The architecture of the scenery is unclear as well – its ruined and faded frescoes seem Tuscan, or even Minoan rather than Roman or Italian.  Above all, it’s a cramped play, a play about narrow streets and small rooms, in which issues of war and peace are decided at very close quarters.

And then there’s Joss Ackland’s Menenius.  Menenius is perhaps the most modern character in the play.  The world has little to fear, I think, from a modern Coriolanus, the kind of person who cannot hide their contempt for humanity, who make no effort to pretend to be popular.  Menenius is more influential than ever right now.  Ackland’s deep and seductive voice makes people complicit in their own oppression.  Populist Menenius, alt-right Menenius or (as I like to say) fascist Menenius, is just one of those politicians who manages to look ordinary voters in the eyes and tell them stories and when he’s wandered offstage those same voters conclude…

“You know what – he’s right.  He tells it how it is.  We plebs really are ungrateful degenerates.  We should just vote supreme power to some rich guy and give up pretending we can criticise political decisions.”

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