Our Revels now are ended

Colin Burrow watches 'Coriolanus'

It was all set to be grand night out. A special preview of Coriolanus at the Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford, to be followed by a Q&A with the film’s director and star, Ralph Fiennes. But he failed to show up. Fortunately I had brought a bag of Revels with me. They kept me going for the first ten minutes, during which Coriolanus, set in modern war-torn somewhere, is unrelentingly khaki. Khaki men run at each other past exploding buses, the internationally accepted big-screen symbol for a war zone. Then there’s a manly man-to-man fight scene between Coriolanus and Aufidius, with knives, and much crouching and panting. Because the film is Shakespeare blockbustered the fight can’t end with the customary slap on the back and scornful laughter. Instead they smash through a window, while something else, probably a bus, explodes all over them.

So far it’s all Shakespeare meets Call of Duty – COD Shakespeare. It even has those little hand-signals that I swear only happen in war films (two sharp points to the left from the leader behind the blown-up bus to tell his men to crack on into the burnt-out building). Caius Martius headshots some civilians in Corioles. Yeah. He levels up and gets called ‘Coriolanus’. Yeah. Momentary flicker of post-traumatic stress, then he kicks butt with some plebeians. Yeah. After all there is a budget to blow.

But once they’ve spent all the money on blowing things up, Coriolanus settles down to be really rather a good film. Menenius makes sense as a worldly Italian politician. The tribunes are slimy men on the make, all suits. The plebeians are never quite sure if they’re a revolutionary mob or a bunch of idiots, but that’s not entirely untrue to the play. Much of the fate of Rome is narrated by Jon Snow, who plays the newsreader on ‘Fidelis TV’, which runs in the background more or less everywhere and keeps the audience up to date on the plot with some clunky scrolling headlines (‘Caius Martius and Aufidius March on Rome’). Snow does such a great job of imposing a newsreader’s inflections on blank verse that I want to see his Hamlet. A bit less fine is the moment at the end of the play when Coriolanus signs a document headed ‘Treaty of Peace’ in big letters, just in case anyone has missed that his mother has made him make peace with Rome.

But the arc of the story comes through very clearly. And some of the simplest ideas in the film are great. The edginess of Aufidius’ alliance with Coriolanus comes to a head, literally, when the Volscian soldiers shave off their noble Serbian beards and adopt Fiennes’s hairstyle: bullet-headed bald. Maybe it wasn’t quite necessary to reinforce the tonsorial point by putting Fiennes in a gilded barber’s chair when he receives his mother’s and wife’s appeal to spare Rome. But he has by this stage of the play become ‘a kind of nothing’ (for which read ‘not much more than a haircut’), so it works pretty well.

There is, though, something wrong with Coriolanus in this Coriolanus. Obviously Fiennes’s failure to show up at the preview prejudiced me against him, but when I hear him doing Shakespeare I tend to hear a voice saying: ‘I am Ralph Fiennes acting Shakespeare... I am Ralph Fiennes acting... Like to a lonely dragon... I am Ralph Fiennes’ – rather than someone inhabiting the lines.

The problem in the film, though, isn’t to do with Fiennes’s performance. It comes from the combination of this play and this medium. Coriolanus is a play in which people make speeches of persuasion, both to individuals and to large crowds. The positioning of microphones in film generally, and in this film in particular, makes it easier to murmur privately than to declaim. When Coriolanus turns the citizens away from the grain store at the start of the film he has a quiet word with a couple of them (with a lot of tanks in the background). This doesn’t quite ring true: the violent language of public confrontation is, in the play, part of both the character and his setting. Rome should be a place noisy with voices rather than exploding buses. Whenever someone is ‘making a speech’ in the film they are given a mike and usually a TV camera too, and their voices are amplified artificially to tell us this is a piece of public rhetoric and therefore to be suspected. The play, by contrast, tangles public and private rhetoric together, and that’s partly why its final scene, in which a mother persuades her son in public not to destroy his city and home, works so well.

This change in the scale of speech creates problems for the character of Coriolanus, who seems to be either too shouty or too quiet and never quite settles down between the two. But it does great things for some other parts of the play. I dropped my bag of Revels when Vanessa Redgrave appeared as Volumnia. She is unspeakably brilliant. That’s partly due to her, but it’s also partly to do with the medium, and in particular the sound. She speaks directly to her son, in close-up and quietly, and it’s as though we’re eavesdropping. This immediately cuts out all the stagey, bossy elements that can make Volumnia unconvincing or simply dragonish in the theatre. The central relationship of the play becomes focal in a cinematic sense, something which you’re forced to focus on and which you almost become part of. When Volumnia speaks to Coriolanus it is – in a powerfully uncomfortable way – embarrassing to be so close to such strength, such strange love, such manipulation.