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(Quadrant, October 1993)

Burke, de Maistre, Richard Hooker, and after these Churchill and General Sir John Hackett. Such are the unexpected names to be found in the Sydney Opera House theatre program for this play about the downfall of a Roman general. But long before one has time to digest their meaning the lights dim, and we are plunged into a Shakespearian production of quite exceptional power.

Sedition, riots, smoothly dissimulating senators and conspiratorial tribunes form the background to Coriolanus’ headstrong and headlong self-destruction. The action is swift, the language stirring, and the play’s editing skilfully maximises the effect of irresistible political energies fatally colliding with a figure of rock-like obstinacy, pride and “soaring insolence”.

There’s a good deal of noise. Seldom have the “alarums” been so alarming, or the “diversions” so diverting. Too often nowadays films and plays appear to be used by acoustical engineers simply to test the pain threshold of the human ear. But here the sound effects and music and spoken lines are well integrated, and the resulting clamour is in keeping with the play’s military subject and declamatory passages.

So it’s exciting—and driving this excitement is the story of a general who runs for public office but lacks the gifts. Against his will, the Senate is pressing him to seek a consulship. But baby-kissing is not his style, shaking hands is beneath him, and wooing votes is too degrading to be borne. The stink of “the rank-scented many” gets up his Roman nose, and when asked to put on a plain unmilitary toga and go modestly amongst the people for their support, he comes out with the sort of thing which never does well at the polls:

Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick, that do appear,
Their needless vouches?

Anyone in Rome can see that though their general is a marvel of bellicosity he “loves not the common people”. His supporters on the other hand claim that his inability to “flatter” means only that “His nature is too noble for the world”. Some take this to mean that Coriolanus’ lordly concept of his own importance represents the aristocratic vision Shakespeare expressed in Troilus and Cressida: “Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what discord follows!”

But there’s little genuinely aristocratic about the man. He’s never heard of noblesse oblige. He’d be restless under any kind of law. His ferocious autonomy has something unformed and primordial about it—something so deeply asocial that with only a degree of provocation it turns and threatens to savage society itself. Banished from Rome, sheer animal spite leads him to join his worst enemy, Aufidius, in an alliance against his native city, an act which sees a vengeful Coriolanus threaten the lives of his own mother, wife and son. They survive—but it’s a close-run thing.

If this were all, Coriolanus might seem like just another misanthropic gunfighter skirmishing on the edges of a violent social order which sometimes needs his services and sometimes doesn’t. There’s something of this. But the play’s tension and poignancy lie elsewhere—in the impossibility of being true to himself and his own morality, while at the same time adopting the false guise of a populistic stage performer which electoral politics require.

Asked by his chief backer Menenius to “speak to the people” Coriolanus begs to be excused a duty he knows he cannot perform: “I do beseech you, let me o’erleap that custom; for I cannot put on the gown, stand naked and entreat them … It is a part that I shall blush in acting”. He cannot act the part because he has never learnt the lines. Instead he “has been bred i’ the wars since he could draw a sword, and is ill schooled in bolted [refined] language”. Begged by his mother to deal more civilly with the plebs, he replies: “Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me false to my nature? Rather say I play the man I am.”

Coriolanus the man is an unmanageable engine of war whose rages are life-threatening to all and sundry. He represents a psychological type difficult to assimilate in the society of his time, and impossible in ours. But his embarrassment in the role of a candidate is as recognisable in our world as his. Hence the appeal of the play. Not only military leaders find it hard to succeed when they turn from a world where directness and clarity are paramount, to a world where smooth tongues, crafty appearances, and calculated untruths are the main elements of success. We don’t have to look far in politics to see that captains of industry, no less than captains of war, find it hard to be uncontroversial; and that professional economists, no less than professional soldiers, rarely have the words they need.

But this isn’t how director Gale Edwards sees the play’s significance. In her introductory note she writes as follows:

I believe that Coriolanus acquires a new relevance when viewed against the backdrop of the late twentieth century. In the recent events of Eastern Europe we have seen the overthrow of dictatorships, the collapse of economies, the emergence of democracies and the descent into criminal tribalisation. Coriolanus would feel quite at home in our world.

Now there are indeed interesting connections between Shakespeare and at least one Eastern dictatorship. In the thirties Hamlet was banned in Stalin’s Russia, and Macbeth was always difficult to produce. In Shostakovich’s memoirs he writes that “Stalin could stand neither of these plays. Why? It seems fairly obvious.” A criminal ruler, one who walks knee-deep in blood. “What could attract our great Leader and Teacher in that theme?” But Coriolanus the man is neither a Macbeth nor a Claudius. And Coriolanus the play is not about ambition or power. It’s about a proud, truculent, and profoundly limited man, who soon proves unsuitable for a political role which he himself does not seek, but which others foist upon him. Banishment is the price he pays for their folly just as much as his own.

We must assume that Ms Edwards is serious in her far-reaching parallels with recent events in Eastern Europe. In which case one might expect them to be recognisable in the play. But so far as I know none of the dictators concerned, even the most eccentric like Ceausescu, ever affected the uniforms of SS guards. So why do we have jackboots and the kind of black riding gear associated with Himmler, a man not seen for fifty years, whose principal activity was the destruction of the Jews? Weren’t the Nazis horrible for their bureaucratic coldness, not for their warlike heat? Didn’t the dictators of the East look rather different?

Of course my questions are purely rhetorical. We know very well why it is. Theatrical folk, without exception, suffer from severely arrested political development. All understanding of modern society in the post-Popper post-Hayek era (roughly the last 50 years) has passed them by. At the same time they know that the enemy is always “fascist”, tout court. It’s as if they spent their time endlessly watching old movies about Nazis in World War Two. So despite the erudite selections from Burke and Richard Hooker, at the level of political comprehension prevailing in theatrical circles, military activity, of all and every sort, equals “fascism”, fascism equals jackboots, ergo, that is what Coriolanus and Aufidius should wear.

Though you wouldn’t quarrel with the costuming overall. This is “no time, no place” plus Roman trimmings for local flavour. A workmanlike collection of boots, jerkins, bodices and skirts produces an effect of ageless Plebeian Motley entirely appropriate to the multiracial Roman crowd described by Shakespeare himself as “some brown, some black, some abram [auburn], some bald”, and possessed of “diversely coloured wits”. The two tribunes of the people—unscrupulous manipulators of chanting mobs, and the least attractive characters in the play—wear nondescript modem suits.

What should the soldiers wear? Khaki is a modern development, and though medieval armour is suitably gladiatorial it doesn’t seem right. If we keep an open mind about the matter it’s obvious that a wide range of possibilities exists. Indeed the possibilities are so varied that it is all the more disappointing that the old cliche of “violence”, “fascism”, and jackboots form a single predictable whole.

Though there seems to be more involved than simply this. Besides the shining boots, we find a quite inordinate amount of black leather, buckles, and bare skin streaming with gore. The homophile S & M overtones of the attitude toward Coriolanus of his enemy/ally Aufidius are certainly there in the text, though in the scene where the destinies of these two rivals grow temporarily together and join forces before marching against Rome, was it necessary to compose them in a pietà?

Aufidius: Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke,
And scarr’d the moon with splinters. Here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valour. Know thou first,
I lov’d the maid I married; never man
Sigh’d truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.

At the play’s conclusion the allies fall out and Coriolanus returns with Aufidius from Rome to Antium. Here a crowd of Antiates having every reason to loathe him for his past misdeeds (“He killed my son! My daughter! He killed my cousin Marcus! He killed my father!”) needs little encouragement to kill Coriolanus himself in turn. The stage instruction then tells us “Aufidius stands on him”, and this is followed by agitated cries from the lords of Antium: “Hold, hold, hold, hold!” In the text before me there is however no direct evidence that Aufidius himself stabs the dying Coriolanus, though it may be in their effort to restrain him that the lords cry out.

What happens in Sydney, however is almost certainly not what happened either in Antium or on the Elizabethan stage. In a fit of violence the black-leather-buckled Aufidius stabs the prostrate Coriolanus again and again. The stabbing looks as if it will go on until midnight—or long past the point at which the director’s spin on Shakespeare’s meaning, and her conversion of an act of revenge into the homicidal sexual frenzy of a jilted lover, is amply clear. Then with blood everywhere and panting ambiguously, Aufidius desists.

It is an unappealingly gratuitous spectacle. Yet this is only a relatively small blemish on a fine evening’s entertainment. The director notes that “it is extremely difficult to pick one’s way through the various factions, and to fathom where our sympathies are meant to lie. I suspect that Shakespeare sided with no-one in the play.” This balance is worked at and sustained throughout. On the one hand stands the imposing, fearful, and slightly ridiculous figure of Coriolanus. On the other (and this is not the least surprising feature of the production) is a ruthless portrayal of the plebeian mob, along with the sort of cynically orchestrated street politics we know so well. The character of Volumnia is well played by Dinah Shearing, and the scene in which she successfully appeals for mercy at the gates of Rome is piercing. The lighter business with Coriolanus during a feast at Aufidius’ house contains enjoyable comic relief. Despite its flaws this production deserved more than the bare month’s run it received. It should have gone on tour.

Posted in Arts and Letters, Theatre.

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