Monday, October 01, 2018

A Tragedy in Chiaroscuro

For Shakespeare's Coriolanus, the tale of a military leader's failure to become a tyrant, director Elijah Moshinsky produced a painterly production for the BBC Television Shakespeare in 1984. Like his production of Cymbaline, it seems primary influence came from Baroque painters, his beautiful uses of darks and lights recalling Caravaggio and Rembrandt, and making it a damned shame the BBC's policy insisted the production be shot on tape. The dark and light aesthetic certainly works for this story about the conflict between a philosophy of enforced control by one man and the capricious tastes of the "voices", or the people.

I love this shot of Coriolanis (Alan Howard), contemplating meeting with his mother (Irene Worth), wife (Virgilia), and his child (Damien Franklin), who aim to plead mercy for Rome. Rome has exiled him, though, and now he's planning his revenge by leading an attack on the city with the forces of the Volsces, the same faction he vanquished at the beginning of the play while in service to Rome. Now he's steeling himself, renouncing all former ties of loyalty and affection. Moshinsky turns soliloquies into voice over narration and we hear Coriolanis' thoughts at the approach of his family;

. . . Let the Volsces
Plough Rome and harrow Italy. I'll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself
And knew no other kin.

Alan Howard went on to play the voice of Sauron in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, which seems appropriate casting, though I don't recall a whole lot of intelligible dialogue from Sauron in those movies aside from, "I SEE YOU . . ." His performance as Corliolanus is right; old fashioned, a lot of bold delivery with thought put into the sound of the language. Coriolanus is not supposed to be a winning orator but in Howard's delivery is the inflexible and resolute commander. There's a vicarious thrill in his taunts to Aufidius (Mike Gwilym) at the end of the play.

Many who've written and commented on the play have perceived a homoerotic quality in the relationship between Coriolanis and Aufidius, the Volsce military leader, and Moshinksy plays this up by having the two men fight shirtless in the early scenes and then, later, when the banished Coriolanis comes to Aufidius to make an alliance, the scene as presented in a dark, intimate location with both men partially undressed. As though, for this point in the dialogue when Coriolanis reveals his identity to his former enemy, the confession is made after the two have had sex. It's a fair reading given how Aufidius describes his pleasure at finding Coriolanis on his knees before him as exceeding the pleasure of embracing his wife though I would say the delight in dominating one's enemies needn't necessarily be sexual.

There's a Satanic quality in the Volsces emphasised in this production by the presence of Valentine Dyall, the Black Guardian from Doctor Who, as Adrian, a prominent Volsce with whom Aufidius holds council. With his wonderful, eerie, deep voice he seems to be as much the malicious manipulative being here as the Black Guardian.

Another great deep voice in the cast is Joss Ackland as Menenius, Coriolanis' ally in Rome. He's presented as honourable and just though there is a wicked savour in his delivery of the lines early on comparing Rome to a human body when talking to the crowd of Plebeians displeased with the government;


There was a time when all the body's members
Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I'th' midst o'th' body, idle and unactive,
Still cuphoarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest; where th'other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body. The belly answered--


Well, sir, what answer made the belly?


Sir, I shall tell you. With a kind of smile,
Which ne'er came from the lungs, but even thus--
For, look you, I may make the belly smile
As well as speak--it tauntingly replied
To th'discontented members, the mutinous parts
That envied his receipt; even so most fitly
As you malign our senators for that
They are not such as you.

Note me this, good friend:
Your most gave belly was deliberate,
Not rash like his accusers, and thus answered:
"True it is my incorporate friends," quoth he,
"That I receive the general food at first
Which you do live upon; and for it is,
Because I am the storehouse and the shop
Of the whole body. But, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood
Even to the court, the heart, to th'seat o'th'brain;
And through the cranks and offices of man
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live. And though that all at once . . . cannot
See what I do deliver out to each,
Yet I can make my audit up that all
From me do back receive the flour of all
And leave me but the bran."

By contrast, the senators who banish Coriolanis are played as petty and foolish. The text of the play is a little more even handed, presenting the real and perennial conflict between the need for a central authority and the need for the people's voices to be respected and heard. But it's not so broad that it breaks the production--the only other complaint I have is that transitions are much to abrupt. One moment you have Coriolanis discussing his impending banishment, then instantly, the next shot is him standing destitute in a street somewhere. Maybe Moshinsky felt this was better than the lacklustre establishing shots of exteriors the budget would've accommodated but, when one assumes the original performances must have had a few moments of prop and scenery shifting in between lines, the sudden transitions don't feel right for the play.

Otherwise, though, this is a lovely production with really good performances.

Twitter Sonnet #1160

Relieving threads the pasta took the floor.
Appeasing savour saved tomato sauce.
Collections dried to spike the footed tour.
To boiled water noodles slowly toss.
A cape ascends emerging ladders late.
The chutes for snakes replace the guilty ink.
The theft prevention broke a stolen fate.
The safety pins have fallen 'neath the sink.
Forgotten cores contain the apple plugs.
Devices hem the cordless mouse to click.
A distance holds the wire's waiting bugs.
Electric rain has left the circuits slick.
Bananas place the human work in peels.
An armoured tread replaced the office reels.

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