A Brief Reflection on Coriolanus

On Sunday, my better half and I went to see a recorded version of the live broadcast version of the stage version of Coriolanus by the National Theatre. It was performed at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Josie Rourke and starred Loki and Mycroft Holmes… Err… Tom Hiddlestone and Mark Gatiss. First of all, it was impeccable. The use of the restrictive theatre space was ingenious. The theatre itself was once a banana ripening warehouse in Covent Garden. The cast were all excellent, particularly Deborah Findlay as Coriolanus’s batshit mental mother Volumnia. You really see how versatile and talented Hiddlestone is as well, the eponymous Roman soldier being a complex and intriguing character. Go and see it, it’s on all over the place in cinemas. You won’t regret it.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen and read a lot of Shakespeare and I’d certainly heard of Coriolanus, but I’d never seen it. It’s a crying shame that it’s not more popular as well. The plot is reasonably straightforward, granted but as a tragedy, it trumps Hamlet and Macbeth in my book.

Coriolanus himself, despite being a pleb-stomping, bloodthirsty arsehole who believes it is his divine right to rule over the peasants, and to withhold food because they don’t fight in wars, is actually surprisingly easy to empathise with to an extent. If one takes away all the pomp and grandeur, he is a simple, military man whose world view is perversely skewed by his mad-as-a-fish mother. He doesn’t believe the things he believes because he has been given a balanced education and made the decision for himself, he’s got there because his entire life has taught him it is true. He’s a misanthrope and a terrible public speaker, prone to bouts of sneering rhetoric and physical violence. It’s hardly surprising therefore to find him erupt into a Vesuvius of privilege and hatred when he is conned into becoming a senator by his mother whom he worships like a deity.

Spiteful tribunes then conspire against him and have the, until recently, popular vote withdrawn from him. The city is roused to anger, remembering that he is in fact a massive wanker and he his banished.

By the end of the play, literally everyone he encounters has either pissed him about or betrayed him. It’s a dark, dark play. Much more bleak than any of the other Bill Shakespeare tragedies.

One of the reasons I like the character of Coriolanus so much is that he’s a bit of an enigma. Everything we know about him is inferred from his actions. Unlike Macbeth and Hamlet and King Lear, he doesn’t stand on the stage on his own and spill out all of his innermost thoughts and secrets to the audience in protracted soliloquies. Quite the opposite, we really don’t know what his motivations are at all. For me, I think that’s wonderful, it leaves me room to actually participate in the story to an extent. To try and discover why he does what he does. For a lot of people though it understandably alienates them. People want answers dammit!

It’s also very easy to miss the complexity of the character. It’s difficult to look past the fact that he cares little for the Roman people and would have the citizens starve, granted and on the surface, he’s like a Roman EDL member. However, his reaction to certain events hint at a very mixed-up and twisted chap inside: his reluctance to run for senate; his shrugging off of fame and adulation; his refusal to resort to slander in order to further himself politically. It’s all quite incongruous with the proud and privileged military hero, turned politician.

Anyway, whatever you think or don’t think about Coriolanus, it’s got me thinking.

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