Sunday, February 5, 2012

Contemporary Coriolanus

Given that I spend almost no time at the movies any more, I have to confess that I was drawn to reading reviews of Coriolanus, the directorial debut of Ralph Fiennes, who also plays the leading role.  Much has been made of how Shakespeare’s conception of this Roman general easily translates into contemporary settings, and the images of Fiennes in both camouflage uniform and a full-dress costume easily mistaken as that of a United States Marine are, to say the least, compelling.  However, in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I have to say that the most effective production of this play was the one I saw on the stage of the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in the summer of 1988.  The set design for that staging by John Hirsch was built around an abundance of television monitors, establishing the post-CNN age of a public that sees the world only through a continuous cycle of broadcast news dispatches, a conception that also seems to underlie Fiennes’ vision of the play.

Nevertheless, there is one significant difference between the two productions.  While Fiennes’ appearance may resemble a high-ranking Marine, his portrayal seems basically generic.  We are at liberty to “fill in the blanks” as we wish.  Hirsch, on the other hand, had the luxury (if you can call it that) of modeling Coriolanus on a specific individual.  The actor performing the role bore a disturbing resemblance to Oliver North, almost as if Hirsch was trying to use Shakespeare’s character to get us to think beyond the pre-digested news reports about North and get under the man’s skin to hypothesize all those motives behind not only what he actually did with regard to our adventures in Nicaragua but also how he conducted himself under Congressional review.  He further exploited our sense of history by modeling Menenius Agrippa (who delivers the wonderful parable of the revolt against the belly staged by the other parts of the body) to resemble one of the great champions of Congressional review, the late North Carolina Senator (and “country lawyer”) Sam Ervin.  In other words Hirsch managed to take on two major scandals under Republican Presidents in a single play!

On the other hand I can appreciate Fiennes’ more generic approach.  One could not really enjoy Hirsch’s interpretation of Coriolanus without catching the references to these two major figures of recent American history.  However, in a culture that no longer seems to care very much about history, references to recent events do not signify as much for any purpose other than that of a cudgel that one candidate can take to another’s head.

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