Understanding Coriolanus: The upside of obsession

Coriolanus ShakespeareWhen I decided to attend my local screening of the National Theatre Live production of Coriolanus (2014) I was expecting to see rows of empty seats. The audience for Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth (2013) had been no more than a dozen people, and it is a far more appreciated play. 

This time, the theatre was packed.

By the time the film started, almost every seat had been taken…by young people. The demographics of this particular audience would fulfil any marketing mogul’s dreams–a full house of 18-25 year olds with enough disposable income to afford the $20 ticket price. They had come, in singles and droves, united in their love for one man–not William Shakespeare, but Tom Hiddleston.

These were Thor (2011) fans, who had followed their beloved Loki out of the Marvel universe and into that of the Bard. Cinephiles who bemoan the comic book domination of the box office should take comfort in the fact that these films are producing genuine stars with sizeable, loyal fan bases. A love of great literature (and by extension, great film) often springs from an unlikely source. How many people picked up “Pride and Prejudice” for the first time after seeing Colin Firth, his white dress shirt clinging to his soaked skin? Benedict Cumberbatch made the effortless leap from Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek to Frankenstein, introducing his legion of fans to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mary Shelley’s work in the process.

So now it is Hiddleston’s turn to guide the next generation’s literary taste, but he is not the only big name screen star to tackle the play. In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed a film version of Coriolanus starring himself in the title role, with Gerard Butler as his adversary Tullus Aufidius. Like the National Theatre Live version, it is set in the modern world, with grimy streets and graffiti covered walls revealing the political turmoil of the play. This is where the similarities end; each version creates very different protagonists and as a result, the tone of the play shifts accordingly.

Coriolanus shakespeare“Coriolanus” itself is a difficult play, partially because its primary concern is truth, lies and reputation. In Shakespeare’s other plays, we can assume that the characters tell us nothing but the truth. When the Montagues and Capulets are said to be bitter enemies, we believe it. In “Coriolanus,” we are given dozens of contradictory opinions–so many that is almost impossible to sort truth from fiction. This becomes problematic when it comes to our protagonist. Fiennes’ Catius Martius often seems distant and cold. His appearance itself is intimidating–the steely blue eyes encased in a smoothly shaven skull reminiscent of his turn as Voldemort from the “Harry Potter” films. His interactions with the common people betray his open contempt for them, and even his tenderest moments with his family are controlled rather than sentimental. Some people complain that Coriolanus is an unsympathetic hero, and Fiennes plays him as a hardened soldier whose final actions are guided by deep inner feelings that are not readily apparent on the surface.

By contrast, Hiddleston’s Catius Martius is emotionally vulnerable and his frustration with the people seems to stem less from his own native pride than from his contempt for the sheer lunacy of their actions. The National Theatre Live production places greater emphasis on Coriolanus’s enemies (as did the original play). The two tribunes of the people openly lie and manipulate an uninformed public–their deceptive ways are less apparent in the Fiennes version, whose politicians are polished experts and pundits rather than pandering demagogues. There are moments of humour and lightness in Hiddleston’s performance that contrast with the serious, brooding solitude of Fiennes.

The films also create completely different versions of Aufidius. Gerard Butler fully inhabits the role and shows Aufidius as both soldier and human being. He has an easy rapport with others, a skill that Fiennes’ Coriolanus deliberately lacks. In one scene, Coriolanus lurks in the shadows as he watches his rival with a mixture of admiration and envy. The final scene between the two is surprisingly poignant, and though Butler does not speak, his face says volumes about his feelings for his enemy. Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius finds himself outmatched and outdone by Hiddleston’s Coriolanus. This Aufidius is driven by his failures, thus the final scene comes across as disturbing rather than sad.

Coriolanus shakespeareWhile both productions are exceedingly well acted, neither version fully captures the ultimate message and tragedy of Shakespeare’s play. Coriolanus is a man who was misunderstood his entire life: branded as proud when his actions show otherwise, forced into politics when he would prefer to shun the public stage. His contempt for the people is not without cause, and there are several scenes in the play that show their hypocrisy. Unfortunately, both cinematic versions have eliminated or altered certain crucial scenes and truncated the ending. Imagine if “Romeo and Juliet” ended with the death of the two lovers and their families never made peace at the end. Those who truly wish to understand “Coriolanus” will need to go back to the source text…

…which brings us back to Tom Hiddleston. In a recent interview, he said: “Some people have been a bit obsessive about attributing responsibility for things that have happened in their lives to me. You want to say: ‘Bless you for saying those nice things, but I’ve done nothing.’” This is not quite true.

Actors have the power to draw us into other worlds, and their influence spurs us to discover new things. A character we identify with may prompt a moment of self-realisation, or the intensity of our fandom drives us toward different, challenging forms of art we never would have sought on our own. I only discovered my favourite film, Henry V (1989), because my childhood crush (Christian Bale) had been in it. At the time, I was watching everything he had ever made, including Steven Spielberg’s magnificent Empire of the Sun (1987). After watching these films, I went to the bookstore and picked up copies of Shakespeare’s play and J.G. Ballard’s novel. I imagine that many of Tom Hiddleston’s fans are now doing the exact same thing.

Dawn Oshiro is an English composition lecturer and “aspiring novelist” whose two passions are film and literature. One day, she hopes to remove the air quotes and the word “aspiring” and actually publish something. You can check out her (non) progress at her blog: http://www.dawnoshiro.com

5 thoughts on “Understanding Coriolanus: The upside of obsession

  1. I think it’s kind of hilarious how folks in my generation have flocked to the Tom Hiddleston bandwagon. I suppose when you star in a movie as bad as The Avengers, it’s not hard to stand out by simply being decent. Nonetheless, I’m sure Coriolanus is worth seeing. For my part, I often become frustrated when famous film actors “return” to the so-called “original” mode of storytelling–the theater–in usually rather blatant attempts to revive their acting careers and gain a degree of legitimacy. Not that Hiddleston needs to do that, but I resent that film actors can seemingly swoop in with such ease and take juicy parts away from theater actors.

  2. Great piece, Dawn. I must confess that I’ve never seen any version of Coriolanus at all – but your piece as me more than a little curious. I’ll have to hunt it down!

  3. Perhaps the real irony is that the “lowbrow” public festival entertainment of our summer blockbuster has come circle back to the Elizabethan equivalent- Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe…

    Plus ca change, n’est-ce pas.

  4. Your enthusiastic and intelligent review has actually made me want to see this film Dawn, so consider that an achievement. I tend to avoid modern settings in Shakespeare adaptations, and as I also try to avoid Branagh, I regret I cannot share your enthusiasm for his portrayal of Henry V. This sounds like a compelling work though, and your review makes it worth seeking out.
    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

    • Hi Pete,
      There are quite a few UK screenings coming up (check the NT Live webpage for the dates/times), so I’m really quite envious. I’d like to be able to see some of these performances more than once, but they usually screen only one or two times here. I especially love Branagh’s “Henry V” for two things in particular: Derek Jacobi as the chorus and the flashback from Henry IV part one that puts Falstaff’s death into context. 🙂

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