New Form, New Content: On Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

coriolanusI admit not having loved Shakespeare that much back when I was taking up my Literature major in the University of the Philippines Visayas. I went through the perfunctory reading of a few love sonnets, Macbeth, and Hamlet, but only because they were taken up in the classroom and not by some real interest or even curiosity. Among the pre-20th Century European literary classics, the big Russian writers – from Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, to Tolstoy – have been more my thing.

Maybe it was the overwhelming feeling of familiarity with Shakespeare’s works imparted in popular culture that prevented my developing an attachment with the bard… That is until I came across Ralph Fiennes 2011 film rendition of the Shakespeare play Coriolanus a year ago. I was awed by the way it infused new content to the old Shakespeare tragedy by way of the film form… by transposing the play from the theatre platform into the widescreen without changing any of the play’s original dialogue.

The possibilities intrinsic to the film form allowed the play to acquire new meanings and associations that would not have been possible if it were staged in the traditional theatre setting. This is Shakespeare entering the 21st Century: Coriolanus opens with a closeup of Aufidius, Gerard Butler playing the rebel leader of the Volscians, sharpening his knife in front of the television. On the screen are montages of mass protests in the city of Rome.

We are then taken into the home of protest leaders plotting their next action. On the tube, the Roman Senator Menenius is addressing the public in the hopes of soothing the people’s emotions. This is followed by a scene of an angry crowd marching to the granaries where they confront riot police led by Coriolanus himself, “the chief enemy of the people.” They are armed with sticks, empty cooking pots, digital cameras, and smart phones, conjuring images of Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

After this encounter, we are back in the television screen again, but with news reports of Aufidius now leading an assault on Rome’s borders. The quickly shifting images evokes an immediacy to what would otherwise be a tedious theatre drama. Coriolanus is Shakespeare on an adrenaline rush. The film’s being shot around the war-torn landscapes of Serbia conjures scenes of the Balkan Wars. All this makes for a jarring portrayal of present-day realities while remaining faithful to the play’s tragic teleology.

Ralph Fiennes cinematic rendition of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is not revolutionary as Slavoj Žižek would like to impute in his introduction to Sophie Wahnich’s In Defence of the Terror. Nonetheless it serves as the perfect example of Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yenan Forum about using the artistic forms of the past in order to remould them and infuse them with new content. It replaced the old theatrical form with a cinematic one in order to tell something new about the present.

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