“He was a kind of nothing,” Fiennes’s Coriolanus

f proof were needed of what verse can still do to us, it is abundant in Ralph Fiennes’s riveting new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.  Set in a putative Rome that is actually, though not visibly, Serbia, the blood-soaked story plausibly unfolds against a European backdrop that seems both ancient and itchily contemporary.  Coriolanus, hailed for ruthlessly subduing Rome’s enemies (the Volscians, who come off here sounding slavicly like “the Volskis”), serves his own ambitions and those of his allies by slipping into political power.  But his vexatious notion of honor prevents him from kowtowing to the crowd, giving his opponents their opening: the mob’s affections are easily reversed and Coriolanus is banished for his arrogance. Following the fierce but crazy logic of his dignity/vanity, he joins forces with the rebels he has just vanquished and marches with them on Rome.

The new agoras here are shockingly familiar: the leather-clad club smoking room; the market square traversed by disgruntled, string-bag-toting women;  the gleaming conference table of the network talk show; the anodyne vistas of the televized town hall; the buzzing aisles of parliament; the impeccable bourgeois living room with its doom-filled television.  We are not trading a set of contemporary conventions for a set of antique ones: we are plunged into our lived reality, a particularly precise European reality.  And here we find, spattered with blood or wearing a tie on news at 11, utterly natural characters, in extremis, speaking in flawlessly inflected iambic pentameter as though there were no other way to communicate.   And we are recalled, after long absence, to a great sonic tradition in which our language elevates and expands to embrace a dramatically heightened existential situation.

In the beginning, like Feinnes’s stiffened and unweildily powerful body, the formality of verse underlines the gravity of the stately roles the characters are driven into by convention. But after the cathartic break, in which an enraged Coriolanus howls at his betrayers as they expel him from power and morphs into a sleek, pantherlike predator, verse becomes the medium of passions and compulsions too huge to convey in ordinary language. (The testosterone-soaked world of the rebel camp is more Fight Club than I, Claudius.) In the pivotal moments in which Coriolanus’s resolve to turn on his own people coalesces, Fiennes slows his delivery down from a howl to a crawl, and the expectation of the end of the pentameter line draws us forward, like the world slowly turning, into the horrible inevitability of his intention.

The notions of honor turned in the light here, which make Coriolanus such a chill and unlovable play, are mercilessly exposed by the contemporary setting. We would not speak of our deeds in this way now, but we continue to act this way. Hearing shapely pentameter spoken by a soldier in camouflage fatigues forcing his way through a warren of apartments and blowing away civilians invites us to reinhabit the whole history of violence and its ritual justifications, some of which occupy some of our most exalted cultural peaks.  One almost feels that the generations of those who watched such plays within the relatively tame confines of the theater were protected from their most harrowing implications.  Coriolanus is driven by honor’s script, a script at the heart of his author’s métier and embedded in the inevitabilities of his heroic language, to horrors one can scarcely imagine.

In Fiennes’s Coriolanus, the action is framed for history by the television, which both authorizes and prompts the mob. When Coriolanus refuses to satisfy the mob by displaying his wounds and juicing his victories, he comes closest to tempting us to admire him, and he also seems most nearly to ventriloquize the poet, more dependent perhaps than he wishes on the penny-paying audience at the footlights.  In this way the play seems not only to comment on the self-consuming ethics of power but an analogous aesthetic peril—a peril apparently close to the heart of the director and star, who has spent a career refusing to beguile his audience. It is the transformations of verse that make the playwright, like the victorious general, a potential liberator or a potential monster. Fiennes uses the ancient power of verbal song and the modern power of film together as no one has before to register the depths of these terrible truths. He, and his master Shakespeare, leave in the wings for the nonce the wonders and consolations that art can bring.

Showtimes here.


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