Theatre Review: Coriolanus at the Globe
This play features the citizens of Rome, as was customary for Shakespeare, as a fickle and foolish lot, shifting wind under the power of the words of their rulers and betters.
The performance of it at the Globe leads to the intriguing twist of bringing the action into the audience (most of whom stand as a crowd before the stage for three hours of more).
We were thus cast as part of the mob, the mob despised by the title character – Gaius Marcius (given, during the play, the name Coriolanus for his part in the capture of the city of Corioli). As Coriolanus ranted how he hated the mob, he moved within the audience, speaking to placed actors in period costumes. The sentiments towards the mob must have jarred with the generally democratic instincts of the modern population.
The play centres on his being appointed Consul (leader) of Rome, and being compelled by the plebeians to gain their votes – for which he must plead and show his war wounds. He believes that consulship is his by right, and resents asking the scum for their voices.
The action then focuses on what is essentially a revolution. The play began with the people in revolt for more bread – which won them tribunes – a representation in government. The tribunes then organise to bring down Coriolanus – as a fierce opponent of democracy.
This leads to him being banished – only to return at the head of a rival powers’ army – much to the consternation of the revolutionary tribunes. Eventually, he is persuaded by the entreaties of his wife and mother not to wage war on Rome, and he returns with his army to be murdered as a traitor to the rival power.
Coriolanus himself is presented as a utopian idealist. He fights for glory, revelling in war. He actively refuses a share of the spoils, claiming only glory motivates him. At war with the world, he wants to be ‘the author of himself’, without any bonds trying him, living only for his glorious legend.His defeat is organised by more worldly Machiavellian politicians.
This raging anti-democrat still manages to hold our sympathies because of his idealism and his proven abilities. He stands as the ultimate individualist – who scowls like a schoolboy when chided to behave by his mother.
The play is littered with corporeal imagery – the state is a body with hands, feet and head. The common people are reduced to mere voices, as airy as Coriolanus’ own glory. It is this sense of powerlessness and insubstantiability that being in the crowd conveys. Audience members could easily recognise the regret of the crowd in making Coriolanus’ the consul for much the same way that most modern politicians – like Tony Blair – are appointed to disappoint by our simple voices.