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Tragedy of Coriolanus, The (1984)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Tragedy of Coriolanus, The (1984)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 21/4/1984, 145 mins, colour
DirectorElijah Moshinsky
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerShaun Sutton
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerDick Coles
MusicStephen Oliver

Cast: Alan Howard (Caius Marcius, later Coriolanus); Irene Worth (Volumnia); Joss Ackland (Menenius); Mike Gwilym (Aufidius); Joanna McCallum (Virgilia); Patrick Godfrey (Cominius); Peter Sands (Titus Lartius); John Burgess (Sicinius); Anthony Pedley (Brutus)

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Although a mighty warrior on the battlefield, Caius Martius Coriolanus finds himself comprehensively outmanoeuvred when he turns to politics.

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The most accessible small-screen production of a surprisingly rarely-filmed play, the BBC Television Shakespeare's Coriolanus was broadcast towards the end of the cycle. Given that director Elijah Moshinsky was also responsible for some of the most visually beautiful productions of the entire BBC Shakespeare project (All's Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Cymbeline, Love's Labour's Lost), it's somewhat startling to find that Coriolanus is relatively spartan by comparison, with sets and props stripped down to a minimum and the lighting correspondingly functional.

This was deliberate: Moshinsky felt that his usual painterly approach wouldn't suit this particular play, whose essence lies in its many impassioned verbal debates. Consciously avoiding the usual scenery-dominated approach to visualising ancient Rome, Moshinsky and designer Dick Coles intensified the feeling of claustrophobia by eliminating all shots of skies and even windows. Script editor David Snodin made some heavy cuts to the text (a full production should run well over three hours), particularly to scenes not featuring the principal characters, in order to add greater urgency to the central story of Coriolanus' downfall.

Moshinsky shied away from imposing a political interpretation on the play, believing that this approach (a common one in the theatre) detracted from what he saw as the play's main theme, "the doubt-ridden hero who travelled through the political and military world and through his own society and made him an outcast and finally a suicide." It's as much a domestic drama as it is a political one, and the small-scale approach stresses this - even the crucial battle scenes are stylised and simplified.

Alan Howard was always the first choice for the title role, having played what was widely regarded as his generation's definitive Coriolanus for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1970s. His interpretation catches the character's pride and arrogance but also his underlying shyness and insecurity - best displayed in the scene where he attempts to mingle with the public but finds himself quite unable to relate to them.

As Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother and ultimate nemesis, Irene Worth neatly judges her balance of maternal loyalty and fierce patriotism, while Joss Ackland's deceptively jovial Menenius stands out amongst the various Roman politicians. Mike Gwilym's appropriately Machiavellian Aufidius is given a reading that stresses the homoerotic elements of his relationship with his arch-rival - both in terms of his delivery of the text and Moshinsky's staging of their various one-on-one battlefield encounters.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The warrior (3:45)
2. Meeting the people (4:56)
3. A mother's advice (3:01)
Sutton, Shaun (1919-2004)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Coriolanus On Screen