Act Four, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
For your Thanksgiving week enjoyment, an interview with Ralph Fiennes from the book Shakespeare on Stage, talking about his 2007 stage performance. I find it fascinating to get an actor’s take on the role, as opposed to say an academic or literary critic – they’re the ones who have to figure out a way to bring that particular character to life on stage and to have his/her motivations make sense to the audience.
You’ve played plenty of the great Shakespearean parts. What’s special about Coriolanus?
It’s an odd role for me. I did it paired with Richard II, always a part I’d had my eye on. Jonathan Kent suggested a double bill with Coriolanus. There’s no particular connection between the plays, except they’re both about people who aspire to power and abuse it. They can’t handle it, and fuck it up. And I just became obsessed with this man. He’s one of the hardest characters to like, I think. The play is like a horrendous, uncompromising cliff face. It doesn’t have any of the warm, human, lyrical moments that you associate with Shakespeare. It seems to be a relentlessly uncompromising, jagged piece. Likewise, he is this peculiar, twisted, repressed machine. He’s pulped and conditioned, malformed by his mother. But I love the anger in it. And he has this aspiration to unbending purity. It can be repellent and fascist, but it’s also…he’s trying to be something distilled. I think it is a real tragedy. And interestingly, most people I spoke to seemed to dislike him initially, and then feel he is the victim of political manipulation and Machiavellian intrigue. Which he is – he’s manipulated by the tribunes, by the people.
It’s one of Shakespeare’s most political plays, and it’s had very diverse interpretations.
Well, I can see all those things. We were more interested in the psychology of what happened between him and his mother Volumnia, which Barbara Jefford played, to make him what he was. Jonathan and I agreed that although he’s full of pride, and there is a kind of vanity, I suppose, in the end he’s got a set of rules he’s determined to live by. They’re rules that she has created, and she has brought him up by them. We were interested in why he was like he was. So the emphasis was on that relationship, and it was not political at all. I think you say ‘Here is the man and you judge, you decide what you think.’
Did you have any particular influences, any particular way of preparing for it, any modern resonances that came to your mind? War heroes are not very fashionable these days. Suicide bombers are more topical, aren’t they?
I remember feeling that the physicality of soldiers is very important. They’re very held, they don’t like giving anything away. I tried to show the repression, and that military thing of being conditioned. It’s in lots of modern films, American films about soldiers going to West Point. You see that sort of mask that comes into play. I don’t necessarily think it’s sexy, it’s a male way of being, a particular code. It’s Samurai-like: ‘There is only one way and this is the say, and I will never deviate from this path and I’m prepared to go to my death to defend the way of the code, the code of honor, this is the way.’ And I looked at a lot of paintings – Victorian paintings of soldiers in uniform, holding themselves very taut – with the designer Paul Brown. I remember a discussion about the tunic. Actually it felt a bit too heavy in the end. If you look at those paintings of warriors, they’re very interesting. That was my thing. I’ve got a whole load of postcards of paintings from those incredibly proud Renaissance princes to the era of Velazquez’s Philip II, and onwards. The way men have themselves portrayed with their virility and pride.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the play. Before you come on you’re described [1.1] as ‘chief enemy to the people,’ and ‘a very dog to the commonality,’ etc. You then arrive and immediately start haranguing these poor hungry citizens. It’s as if the mere sight of a plebeian is enough to set you off. Why this high-octane abuse as soon as you walk onstage?
Well, first of all, they are rioting, and he doesn’t know them. This is his weakness: his ignorance, there’s no question. But as the actor you have to find his vision of the world, which is that these people are wanting to be fed, yet when the chips are down they won’t go to war. And that’s how Shakespeare writes them, buckling and running.
But they’re not soldiers – not everyone’s a soldier.
Yes. But I suppose in Shakespeare’s time very few people were. Now we have professional soldiers, which then was probably less the case.
So in those days they would all have been expected to turn out, would they?
Well, I’m guessing this, but I think probably at that time you were mustered for armies. The concept of the professional soldier hardly existed. There were trained mercenaries, famously, in the Thirty Years War. But really a nation’s army was its people. Anyway, I think that no one in the audience would know that, it’s a programme note. The point is, I suppose, he’s decided that they are fickle. His haranguing of them is because they just don’t stand up. They’re not what the Americans call ‘stand-up men.’ When the going’s good, fine. But when they have to confront, they won’t do it. Coriolanus’s attitude of course is not a good one, because they are hungry people. But he’s prepared to die. He’s absolutely prepared to die. The way he lays into them probably makes him unattractive, but it’s what he feels. ‘I am prepared to go into battle. I am prepared to die, and I don’t think any of you are.’
That’s why I asked if you thought there was anything of a suicide bomber in his outlook.
Yes, I’m sure there is.
It’s all for the cause?
I also think he’s unhappy. He’s longing for the release. There’s a release, there’s an ecstasy in battle. I don’t think his mother showed him any affection. It’s all to do with that. I think he’s a deeply disturbed man. If you create someone like that, of course he can go the distance, but he’s emotionally dried up. He’s not emotionally intelligent, because of how he’s been made. I think the audience understand him more as the play goes on. Initially they think ‘What?’ Dramatically, it’s a piece of strong writing to have a man come in and go ‘You fucking scum, you should do it like this. Hang ‘em, hang’em, hang ‘em. Fuck off, hang ‘em!’ But later I think there’s a chance that you can understand, when you see the way his mother manipulates him in Act 3. She says ‘Go back to the people and he goes. I think he’s like…you know when horses are trained very specifically to be ridden a certain way, if you give them a wrong instruction they hate it. I always thought he was like a horse. His mother said go back, and he went.
It’s interesting that at the end of the first scene, when you smell military action, you’re transformed. You’re a different person. You’re energized and positive in a way that you haven’t been before. There’s a line about venting ‘our musty superfluity.’ I wonder whether that is a collective thing about the plebs or whether it’s personal – the reason for your spleen on your first entrance…
Inaction. I hadn’t thought of that, that’s very good.
…kicking your heels and becoming splenetic.
Well, even if he says it about the other people, a psychiatrist might say that it’s really about himself.
If you’re not onstage, you’re being talked about. Which is nice, isn’t it, because it does part of your job for you, I suppose.
It’s quite an exhausting part. When you read it, you think you have free time. At first I thought ‘Oh fine, there’ll be little rests, it’s not like a Richard or a Hamlet.’ But actually when you’re off, you’re changing or you’re paring. You come on and have quite a big scene sneering at the people, saying ‘Hang ‘em!’ and giving a litany of reasons why they rare repulsive. Then you go off and there’s a gap in which you are changing or getting ready for the battle scene. After that it’s relentless. I felt I had to bring that adrenalin of a man going to war. There’s the siege of Corioli (1.4), there’s the cursing of his own soldiers, the going in, the coming back out. You feel as an actor that you must be pumped for this to be convincing.
‘Fiennes displays a ferocious ecstasy as he runs into the very jaws of death.’
So Coriolanus takes the city and then he goes to help Cominius, the other Roman general, his superior. He arrives covered in blood, saying, ‘Come I too late? Come I too late?’ [1.6]. Cominius says ‘You must rest.’ He says ‘no, we mustn’t rest, we must go on.’ And he has this wonderful speech like a mini Henry V moment, where he says to the soldiers: ‘If any such be here…that love this painting/Wherein you see me smear’d…’ He gets them all shouting and waving their swords, and then he goes off again into battle. And we’re still in Act I! So that in terms of theatre energy, you’ve done more fighting in the first act than in other plays happens at the end. You have expended massive amounts of adrenalin. He gathers the soldiers to him in that one moment.
‘O me alone! Make you a sword of me! he says [1/6]/
I adore that line.
You lingered lovingly on the phrase Why was it so special to you?
I felt it was a moment of self-definition, of self-realization. ‘Yes, I’ll do it on my own, on my own.’ It was like ‘This is what I am. I’ll be the perfect sword.’
A real ‘raison d’etre.’
Yes. Cominius says ‘Take your choice of those/That best can aid your action.’ He replies:
Those are they
That most are willing. If any such be here –
As it were sin to doubt – that love this painting
Wherein you see me smear’d, if any fear
Lesser his person than an ill report,
If any think brave death outweighs bad life
And that his country’s dearer than himself,
Let him alone, or so many so minded,
Wave thus to express his disposition,
And follow Martius.
Then they all shout and wave their swords and take him up in their arms and cast up their caps. He says ‘O, me alone! Make you a sword of me!’ It was an ecstatic moment of a man doing all he does best, and being acknowledged for it by his soldiers. We cut the rest of the speech, because he then goes into this funny qualification which is difficult to follow. And it sort of dwindles away.
After the victory, you request freedom for ‘a poor man’…
A great moment.
…then you forget his name.
Yeah, that’s fantastic.
It’s quite out of charaer, isn’t it?
Well, that’s what I love about it. There are these little moments where you glimpse this other person that he could have been. He’s gone into the city, and at one moment in this horrendous act of violence – he was probably killing people and being wounded – and out of the blue a figure came up and shielded him, or he ran into some Volscian shopkeeper’s store and this little man gave him a glass of water. This is what I imagined for myself. He suddenly had this bit of simple humanity. Afterwards he just remembered. And I think that’s the genius. You say it’s out of character, but then, well, what are our characters? People think we’re one thing, and then we say or do something, and they go ‘Oh, I didn’t think that’s like you!’ But it is me.
There aren’t many moments in the part that surprise you like that.
No, there aren’t. As an actor you leap on that moment.
He’s terribly bad at receiving praise. ‘No more of this, it does offend my heart,’ he says [2.1] He won’t receive praise and he won’t show his wounds to the people Why not? You know it’s the custom. Why won’t he let them see his wounds?
I’ve done the work, why should I? I feel like that with journalists. I’ve done the work, why should I talk about it? ‘Well you know I fought in the battle, why should I prostitute myself?’ It’s like a prostitution for him. Flaunting. ‘Why should I flaunt these things for you? I’ve actually put myself on the line.’
It’s a matter of pride.
It involved having an intimate relationship with people you think are beneath you, isn’t that it.
I suppose so. For me it was more like ‘Why should I be a commodity, why should I display my wounds in order to get your votes?’ I guess that’s pride, but in his head it’s ‘I’ve done it. I have taken Corioli. I have the name.’ It’s true, he is proud, he doesn’t want to talk to them about it. He makes little noises. ‘I have wounds to show you, which shall be yours in private,’ he says (2.3). Whatever that means. It means ‘I won’t ever do it.’
He’s supposed to share his wounds with the people at large. And there’s this whole episode about the gown of humility, whether he’s going to put it on or not. It’s kind of comic in a way. But it makes you wonder how much he actually wants to be consul, because the gown is also part of the deal.
I think he really wants it.
Power. Prestige. But much as they’re manipulating him, I think they’re right when they say that he shouldn’t be consul. He’s totally unpolitical, he’s contemptuous of the whole body of the state, the people. He’s like an ambitious little child wanting the top prize. It’s power and prestige, it’s position and it’s the highest honor.
Professor Antony Clare wrote a note in your programme saying ‘From a psychiatrist’s point of view, pride is often a mask to cover up a deep-seated insecurity.
Yes, I think that’s right. It goes back to the whole mother thing I was trying to explain. That the pride was a layer, a carapace to protect him. I saw something I wish I’d done. I was watching Alan Howard in the BBC TV production (which you feel is made on a shoestring, to its detriment really). But he does this wonderful thing when he’s talking to the people. He simply doesn’t know how to talk to them, when he asks for their voices. I think I played it a bit too much on the note of a sneer, a sort of ‘You reptiles’ tone. But when I saw Alan, after I’d played the part, I thought it was really interesting, because he actually didn’t know how to form a sentence to these people. It seems like contempt, and it partially is contempt, because that’s the only thing he’s been trained to feel for them. But a man comes up to him and says ‘Why are you standing here?’ Alan did it brilliantly. He said ‘Well…you know the reason why I’m standing here.’ There was something slightly hesitant and held at the same time.
But, he has no people skills at all, and that’s basically why he couldn’t hack it, isn’t it. It’s so interesting at the beginning of Act 3, Scene I, everything seems to be fine. He’s been given the vote for the consulship and he’s got Aufidius in his sights. Then he meets the tribunes and just flies off the handle. He’s totally self-destructive, isn’t he? He’s his own worst enemy.
I know that in my rational, balanced, Guardian-reading way, that what he says is repulsive. He’s not electable. But dramatically I just love his uncompromising attitude, his imagery of ‘Bring in/The crows to peck the eagles.’ He has these wonderful speeches. He obviously hates the idea of any kind of unrest. He says, about letting the tribunes have any sway:
…and my soul aches
To know, when two authorities are up,
Neither supreme, how soon confusion
May enter ‘twist the gap of both, and take
The one by th’ other.
Then he argues at length about giving a voice to the people, what harm it does, and he concludes with:
Thus we debase
The nature of our seats and make the rabble
Call our cares fears, which will in time
Break ope the locks o’th’senate, and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles.
Isn’t that great stuff?
And you see his vision that the patrician establishment rules the best. They keep the strength, they keep the solidity, they keep the power, and Rome and survive with this hierarchy. But if we allow this little middle road of debate and the people’s voice, it’s the way to unrest. It’s not something I personally feel, but it’s great to play. And actually, in this fucking New Labour world of spin, I’m getting more intolerant. I like to hear the voice of ‘Get out of the way, let’s speak it how it is.’ I loved it when a couple of army officers said Tony Blair should be impeached for what he’s done. I love it when people speak out. The press go ‘Oh, Sir General Downing should have never said the army is in a bad state…’ Well, good for him for saying it.
I wonder whether there’s a problem for a modern actor in terms of the part being very much to do with heroism, but we don’t have superheroes these days. Also because of films and TV, grand-scale acting is not current. Was that a problem?
What’s a real problem is that his anger is so often talked about, and the way he flips into white-hot rage so quickly. The challenge of the part is finding the gradations and moments of subtlety, nuance. So much of what he says about the people is quite repetitive. He goes into the marketplace, wearing the gown of humility. He starts in a rather obtuse, ironic, contemptuous tone, all in prose. Then he segues into verse, saying ‘Why should I stand here begging? I deserve this!’ But then suddenly he switches and decides to play it right down the line, like ‘Right! I am doing it. I’ve said I would hate to do it, I would despise myself for doing it because I don’t see I need to. But fuck it, I’m gonna do it.’ And he does it. ‘Your voices! For your voices I have fought,/Watch’d for your voices’ Bang bang bang bang. Menenius comes in and says ‘Right, you’ve done it, now it’s fine.’ So it’s done.
But then in the following scene [3.1] he’s confronted by the tribunes who say ‘You haven’t done it correctly. You didn’t ask for the people’s voices with enough humility, so you have to do it again.’ And he goes mad at this, he says ‘I have done it!’ And he has done it. So he has this extended moment of building rage. It can be quite funny because everyone says to him ‘Come, enough.’ ‘Enough, with over-measure.’ He says ‘No, take more.’ They go ‘Has said enough.’ But he goes on and on and on. He keeps going on and on, it’s relentless. The language is very difficult, and the rhetorical arguments that Shakespeare give him are tortuous. But I loved playing it, it was a wonderful…[Ralph makes Wild Western shot-out sounds and gestures.] The rage just builds and goes on and goes on. You have to keep topping yourself and topping yourself and topping yourself. And within that, not let it become a shout or a rant, but keep the arguments at high octane, and keep inventing. On a good night, at some kind of speed, it really seemed to work. Jonathan always said to me, if you take time to lay everything out clearly, you can lose it. I remember trying to find the right balance, because you can sometimes overspeed, and then you also feel you’ve lost it. To keep the argument active and present, and the rage building without it becoming too extreme, that was the hardest thing. So it was quite athletic, vocally and emotionally.
Another review said ‘Rarely can a leading actor have strained so little to attract sympathy. No charismatic histrionics, but a portrait of the killing machine as schoolboy cipher, stamping his feet like a spoilt child when he meets resistance from his mother.’ Tell me about that moment.
It’s in the next scene [3.2], where Volumnia persuades me to go back again to the people. She says ‘Go to them, with this bonnet in thy hand…’ It became one of those things that was funny when I first did it, and then it got a bit over-heavy. ‘Look, mother, I’m going…[Stomping feet.’] Yaahhhhh! [Making a face and putting his thumbs in his ears.[ Well, it wasn’t quite that extreme. But he becomes the little boy saying ‘I’m going, look! You told me to go and I’m going. Here, you see, I’m going, Okay? Are you happy now?’ I remember that with my own mother, she’d say, ‘Go and tidy your room. You go and do this.’ And I’d say ‘I’ve done my room, look. Look, it’s all done. Can you see? Are you happy now? My bed, is it good enough for you?’ It was that sort of thing.
So back he goes, and immediately there’s the final flare-up.
I think it’s all part of the spiral of what’s happened. His own emotions and temper have taken him to the first confrontation with the tribunes, then back to the mother. ‘Go back to the people,’ she says, ‘speak softly to them.’ So he goes back again to the people, and says, ‘Plant love among’s,/Throng our large temples with the shows of peace…’ etc. [3.3] But then they say ‘You’re a traitor.’ A TRAITOR???!!! That’s when he goes off like a machine gun – ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba!’ – ‘You common cry of curs…’ And he loses it:
I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty!
And in the heat of the moment he says:
For you, the city, thus I turn my back,
There is a world elsewhere.
So we depart to go into exile [4.1]. As you say goodbye to your family, you seem at your most informal and relaxed, almost happy. It’s odd, isn’t it. Because you’ve just been banished from Rome, and apparently you don’t know where you’re going.
I don’t think he does. It all happens in the moment. There’s no planning. I think there’s a release in him, a huge release. There’s a huge sense of ‘I’m getting out of here.’ It’s not necessarily a conscious thought. And talking lf laugh lines, there’s the one about six of Hercules’ tasks. He says to his mother as he goes, trying to cheer her up:
Resume that spirit, when you were wont to say,
If you had been the wife of Hercules,
Six of his labors you’d have done, and sav’d
Your husband so much sweat.
Yes, he’s on the move. They would pick him out, he’s going to be killed. So it’s a hurried farewell on the corner of some street. I remember playing it quite fast. ‘Goodbye. Yes, yes, come on. Bye. Don’t sorry, don’t worry…’
Arriving in Antium, you say ‘My birthplace Hate I, and my love’s upon/This enemy town.’ [4.4] Your defection seems very abrupt. For other parts, in other plays, Shakespeare might have written a soliloquy showing a spiritual crisis, the inner turmoil that leads into that statement. But there’s nothing like that. Do you think it’s underwritten, or is it appropriate for Coriolanus?
I found a new vocal placement for this scene. Having earlier been ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba!’, suddenly here he is Antium, and he’s covered up. But I think he’s someone who relishes a feeling and then says it. ‘My birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon/This enemy town.’
He’s not a Hamlet, not a cogitator.
No, I don’t think he is. But he registers that he might be killed there, doesn’t he. And actually he does have a couple of bits of cogitation just before that. He says:
many an heir
Of these fair edifices ‘fore my wars
Have I heard grown and drop. Then know me not,
Lest that thy wives with spits, and boys with stones,
In puny battle slay me.
O, world, thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn,
Whose double bosoms seem to wear one heart,
Whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise
Are still together, who twin, as ‘twere, in love
Unseparable, shall within this hour,
On the dissension of a doit, break out
To bitterest enmity.
That’s a reflection on the world. It’s not really depicting personal inner turmoil.
He recognizes the capriciousness of everything – it’s all just turned in a moment.
So you go over to Aufidius, and seem quite calm on the surface.
It’s funny, that speech (4.5). It’s incredibly controlled and articulate, telling Aufidius why he’s here. ‘I’m ready to die.’ It has a formal clarity, and it’s more accessible than many other speeches with all the raging stuff. His mind is very clear, with the clarity of hatred.
It’s a long speech and for nearly forty lines Aufidius doesn’t react. Shakespeare doesn’t give him anything to say.
Well, Coriolanus is here in front of him, out of the blue. I think he hears him, and he’s annoyed. And the speech has a clear line running through it.
Menenius says ‘He and Aufidius can no more atone/Than violent’st contrariety’ (4.6). In spite of that it does seem to be remarkably easy for that alliance to be formed. Does he expect it to be so easy?
He doesn’t know what to expect, but he knows exactly what he’s going to say. ‘I hate Rome, it’s betrayed me. I want to destroy my country. If you wish to use my skill against Rome, so be it. If not, kill me.’ It’s very, very, very simple.
Aufidius says earlier that Coriolanus is ‘Bolder, though not so subtle.’ (1.10), which is accurate, isn’t it?
It’s true yes. that relationship is very interesting. Aufidius has intense hatred and envy of Coriolanus, but when they meet he uses language almost of infatuation.
A homoerotic relationship?
I think that’s there. We didn’t play it as full-on as we might have done. But it was there. Linus Roache played Aufidius, and he definitely indicated that. He behaves like a betrayed lover. And he’s vicious, he is…vicious.
When the play was done at Nottingham in the 1960s, with John Neville as Coriolanus and Ian McKellen as Aufidius, it was apparently an overtly homosexual relationship. But you didn’t go that far, I take it.
It depends on what you mean by ‘overt.’ In our production there was clenching and hugging and touching.
When you fight in Act I?
That’s right, yeah. There was a moment when we held each other and looked (1.8). But I don’t think we ever wanted to sledgehammer home overt homosexuality, it was about intimacy and proximity…
But after you defect, Aufidius is speculating as to why you couldn’t carry on as a noble servant of Rome (4.7). He says ‘Whether ‘twas pride…whether defect of judgement…or whether [inflexibility in] not moving/From th’ casque to th’ cushion…’
‘…but commanding peace/Even with the same austerity and garb/As he controll’d the war.’
Do you think it’s any of those things in particular, or all of them?
I think it’s a bit of everything.
Going on to Act 5. When your wife and son and mother come in, even before they arrive you say ‘Shall I be tempted to infringe my vow/In the same time ‘tis made? I will not.’ (5.3). It rather sounds as if you will! And then before they speak you say ‘I melt, and am not/Of stronger earth than others.’ So the vacillation is evident.
I found it very hard to know the pitch of this stuff. He has his asides which are odd, because they describe what the audience is seeing: ‘My wife comes foremost, then the honour’d mould…I melt…My mother bows..’ I found the formality of it quite difficult. He kneels, she kneels, he raises her. And this strange character of Valeria. It’s an odd formal meeting of the three women coming to Coriolanus, in which Shakespeare gives him these funny little descriptions of his inner state, which are hard to pull off. Then the idea that Volumnia has knelt to him. He says:
Your knees to me? To your corrected son?
The let the pebbles on the hungry beach
Fillip the stars. Then let the mutinous winds
Strike the proud cedars ‘gainst the fiery sun,
Murd’ring impossibility, to make
What cannot be, slight work.
The idea that she would ever kneel to him ‘murders impossibility.’
But it’s hard to play. You can feel the audience going ‘What’s happening?’ The scene sags. It seems to kick in when he says:
I beseech you, peace!
Or if you’d ask, remember this before:
The thing I have forsworn to grant may never
Be held by you denials. Do not bid me
Dismiss my soldiers or capitulate
Again with Rome’s mechanics. Tell me not
Wherein I seem unnatural. Desire not
T’allay my rages and revenges with
Your colder reasons.
‘Don’t do this, don’t tell me this!’
Nonetheless, from the moment of their entrance you feel he’s going to be won over.
I think the audience genuinely doesn’t know his feelings. The tension is that they shouldn’t.
In Harley Granville Barber’s Preface to Coriolanus he says ‘Coriolanus is no renegade; his striving to be false to Rome is false to himself.’
Yeah, he hates it. He knows he’s false to himself. I think you can feel the conflict in him. He sees his mother and says:
But out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.
But that’s not the way he carries through the scene, is it.
No, that’s what I’m saying. It helps the audience to not know. If they followed those little asides, they really don’t know. And when Volumnia starts her long speech, they still don’t know where it’s going to go. I think not all elements of our production worked, by any means. But you know that great moment when a Shakespeare play cuts to the chase – it cuts to what everything’s been building towards – and you feel the audience catch fire? It was like that. She’s going on and on, and he’s not giving in, and he’s not giving in. And then the collapse.
There’s a stage direction about silent hand-holding…
‘Holds her by the hand, silent.’ We did that. I love that stage direction. Just as a sentence it’s wonderful. The main thing for me in the play was the relationship with the mother. Barbara turned to walk away from me, and as she turned I grabbed her. She stopped and I went to pieces, fell to my knees, so I was looking up at her. There’s the line:
What have you done?…
But for your son, believe it, O, believe it,
Most dangerously you have with him previl’d,
If not most mortal to him.
Meaning ‘You know what you’ve done? I’m going to die.’ And she had this look as if to say – actually it would have been great in close-up – as if to say ‘Yeah, I know.’
But she’s happy with that, isn’t she? She’s got no problem with you dying, as long as you die gloriously.
Yes yes, she can live with that. She says earlier on ‘Had I a dozen sons…I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action’ (1.3)
You had a tremendously affecting breakdown.
I saw it as a breakdown. I hope I didn’t overextend it as the production went on, but I remember that I ended up on the floor literally trying to pull myself together. And to face Aufidius, who’s looking down disdainfully at Coriolanus in tears. I had a great line: ‘Would you have heard/A mother less? Or granted less, Aufidius?’ And he just says, with a sneer, ‘I was mov’d withal.’
What is it that makes you so emotional at that moment?
I don’t know. It felt like a huge release that I’ve never really examined. It’s like a little boy pleading with his mother in the most open, innocent way. ‘Mummy, Mummy, please don’t do that, Mummy, please say it’s okay…’ it’s the little boy pleading with his mother on the most basic, most simple most childish level. I think that’s what’s moving.
Tell me how you died.
I went back to Tullus Aufidius bearing a formal presentation (5.6):
We have made peace
With no less honor to the Antiates
Than shame to th’Romans…
‘Were all fine.’ Then he starts. He calls me ‘thou boy of tears.’ He insults me to the point where I have the final Coriolanian explosion:
If you have write your annals true, ‘tis there,
That like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioles.
Alone I did it. ‘Boy!’
So he throws the insult back at Aufidius. And then everybody says ‘He killed my son!’ ‘My daughter!’ ‘He killed my father!’ And I was grabbed from behind by Volscian soldiers, in cruciform, and had my throat cut.
Yes. He came up to me and did it.
Would you like to play it again?
Would you change it much, do you think, if you played it again?
Yes, I would. But I’m reticent to talk about it, it’s too early. [In 2010, Fiennes played Coriolanus again, this time on film, also marking his directorial debut.]
It’s quoted as the tragedy of a man whose moral and psychological failings bring about his downfall. Does that seem accurate?
Yeah, that’s right. I see it as a tragedy of some little boy being made into only one thing, with this rigid attitude. Rigidity snaps, whereas if you’ve got any fluidity, you have more chance of surviving. There’s a whole mass of experience he’s never been allowed to have. So he becomes this rigid think, he can only be a sword. ‘O me alone! Make you a sword of me!’
Our next reading: Act Five of Coriolanus
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And have a terrific Thanksgiving weekend!