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2 january 2016

I have seen Coriolanus only once, at the Barbican in 1990. The Royal Shakespeare Company production starred Charles Dance, of much later Game of Thrones fame, and was directed by Terry Hands, who had done a pretty bad job with Troilus and Cressida a decade earlier and for my money did an even worse job this time. My money was fifty quid or so to sit in the third row near the lip of a thrust stage. At one point Dance played an intense scene with Barbara Jefford, as Coriolanus' mother Volumnia, just a few feet above me. They were so Godawful that I got the giggles, much to the indignation of folks around who were spellbound. They didn't break character, but they could hardly have missed the giggling idiot at their feet. I feel bad about it now, but live theatre gets live reactions, for better or worse. I didn't want to giggle, but listening to Dance drone on, I got to the point where I had no choice.

It didn't help that Coriolanus, like Troilus and Cressida, is a three-hour-plus test of Sitzfleisch when given the "uncut" RSC treatment. But though I sometimes blame Shakespeare for long and dubiously dramatic plays, I won't blame him for Coriolanus. I think it's a great play to read and potentially a great theater piece. It has attracted many of the top-tier stage actors – Anthony Hopkins, Ian Richardson, Ian McKellen – and was one of Laurence Olivier's most memorable roles. The play's appeal is checked by the obscurity of its story, the lack of any love interest, and its bitterness, but it's one of the best ever written about politics and government.

Not that it's exactly original to praise William Shakespeare for verbal skills, but I think that all three Roman history plays – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra – are exceptional for the fluency and inventiveness of their language. They read like a great trilogy; they pose problems of the relationship between individuals and their roles in the state; they wonder if good leaders can ever prosper – or whether perhaps prospering in office destroys individual goodness.

I was taught in the 1970s that Coriolanus was a play about the existential relationship of individual to community. Can one man really say "I banish you!" to his city? Or does such insistence on self-reliance make one "a kind of nothing, titleless?" And certainly such themes are central to the play. But it strikes me now that I was led to them in an oddly apolitical way. "Existential" readings downplayed the themes of class division that saturate the play. They saw war and politics as a kind of incidental setting for a drama of man against the world.

The fault-lines of American politics in the 2010s can't help get me noticing its political rhetoric, though (and doubtless changing contexts will lead to newer emphases for future readers). Coriolanus is not conceited. He absolutely knows, for an empirically proven fact, that he is better at protecting Rome than anybody else. It ain't bragging if you back it up. Whether he should try to parlay his military skills into becoming consul is another question, but it's what folks did in the Roman Republic (and it's probably what at least one of your representatives has done in the American Republic).

Predictably, of course, Coriolanus finds the whole process of asking for votes asinine. He did what he did; why does he have to repeat it? Even the people initially grant that, when he grudgingly "campaigns" for their approval. Only when their tribunes point out to them that Coriolanus is a big jerk do they remember to ignore his merit and act aggrieved.

I'm not saying that Coriolanus is easy to get along with. His skin is as thin as Saran Wrap, which is perhaps why he has so many knife-wounds to begin with. At the slightest hint that he may have done something wrong, or even not know what's best to do in future, he tells everybody in Rome what idiots they are. His enemies Brutus and Sicinius, tribunes of the people, know that they don't really have to attack him: he's so quick to perceive attack that he'll destroy himself in the process of self-defense.

And of course the tribunes are intensely interesting characters because they value "the people" as little as Coriolanus does. Brutus has the best speech in the play, sneering at the celebrity-stricken common folk of Rome, which begins

All tongues speak of him, and the bleared sights
Are spectacled to see him: your prattling nurse
Into a rapture lets her baby cry
While she chats him: the kitchen malkin pins
Her richest lockram 'bout her reechy neck,
Clambering the walls to eye him. (Act 2, Scene 1)
The play offers a catalogue of uncomplimentary things to say about working-class people, who proceed to live down to the way they're described. "He that depends / Upon your favours, swims with fins of lead," Coriolanus tells the citizens (Act 1, Scene 1). One of the better things anyone says about the populace is that they are a "mutable, rank-scented meinie" (Coriolanus in Act 3, Scene 1). I'm expecting to see Donald Trump tweet that about some group soon.

And of course, the tribunes, who only pretend to love the "people" while leading them in more impulsive directions than a crowd in a Simpsons episode, are incompetent and venal, the kind of "leaders" who "wear out a good wholesome forenoon in hearing a cause between an orange-wife and a faucet-seller, and then rejourn the controversy of threepence to a second day of audience" (Menenius, the plain-spoken Enobarbus type of the play, in Act 2, Scene 1).

In such political circumstances it becomes impossible to do the right thing. Coriolanus is a born leader, unerringly choosing what's best for Rome and even later on what's best for the Volscians he's defected to. He chooses well because he hates everybody so much that he's completely disinterested. But because he can't disguise his contempt, everyone envies him and tries to bring him down. It's a far more complicated dynamic than I have time or space to address here, but this time through Coriolanus seemed to me the tragedy not of one man but of the system he's up against.

Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus. 1623. Edited by Philip Brockbank. 1976. London: Methuen, 1978.

UPDATE 1.14.16: As it fell out, last night I got to see a video of the Donmar Warehouse's recent production of Coriolanus, with Tom Hiddleston in the title role. This production is a couple of years old now, but just making its way into very limited release in movie theaters in the US, and it's amazing, confirming my theoretical belief that the play can work very well in hands like director Josie Rourke's.

Rourke stages the play in the raw space of the Donmar Warehouse with a small, heavily doubled cast, spare costumes (little stylized elements over rehearsal clothes, mainly), and a set largely imagined, defined by lights, projections, and temporary applications of paint. (Roman citizens speak like Londoners; Volscians, the same actors, have Northern accents.) The play took inspiration (an orientational video told us) from video'd scenes of Parliamentary brawls, and scenes of street protest and violence, from across the world. Hiddleston is wonderfully athletic, and Deborah Findlay as Volumnia every bit his match in emotional power; Mark Gatiss, best known on TV as Mycroft Holmes, is a fussy and ineffectual Menenius, which is to say a perfect foil for the violent Coriolanus. The production worked so well that I forgave them cutting the very speech I praised above, Brutus' "kitchen malkin" lines.

One effect of cutting that speech is to make Coriolanus less charismatic. Rourke's plebeians only love Coriolanus in the frenzy of battle or victory; he doesn't have the magnetism that makes their recantation of their "voices" such a betrayal in other versions. The choice points up one of the dilemmas of Coriolanus: it's about fascism, certainly, but does fascism come from dictators or mobs – or their alignment?