Of all Shakespeare's tragedies Coriolanus is probably the least known to the general public. There are no great set-piece speeches and the hero has failed to achieve the iconic status enjoyed by Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. Although productions of the play have become more frequent since the 1950s, it has never been part of the bread-and-butter Shakespearean repertory. Yet Coriolanus is one of the Bard's best-constructed and most overtly political plays; perhaps the availability on DVD of Elijah Moshinsky's 1984 production will help to introduce the work to a wider audience.
It has to be said that there is one glaringly obvious reason for the play's poor showing in the popularity stakes: the sheer unpleasantness of most of the characters. It's hard to empathise, let alone sympathise, with the haughty patrician hero, his overbearing mother, the fickle people of Rome and their self-serving tribunes. Yet a well-cast and sensitively directed Coriolanus can be a stunning theatrical experience, and this BBC Shakespeare version is one of the best episodes in the series.
Moshinsky, in common with most directors used by the BBC, adhered to the "house style" of Jacobean costumes and studio sets. His Rome is a city of crumbling market squares, simple domestic interiors and dark council chambers decorated with fading murals. There is little attempt to open out the drama, although Coriolanus' first entrance on horseback allows him to sneer at the plebs from a greater height than usual!
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's longest plays but Moshinsky has pared down the running time to a streamlined 2 hours and 25 minutes. It's a pity that much of the play's humour didn't make it to the final cut; Menenius (Joss Ackland) is robbed of some of his best lines - no mention of him enjoying a cup of hot wine "with ne'er a drop of allaying Tiber in it" or "conversing more with the buttock of the night than the forehead of the morning" - but he makes the most of his role as the snobbish yet sentimental old statesman. The hilarious scene in which Coriolanus (Alan Howard) is forced to demean himself by begging the plebeians' votes is, fortunately, left intact.
Howard had already played the title role to great acclaim for the RSC in 1977. Although there are moments when his delivery is pitched more to the gallery than the camera, he makes the character understandable if not sympathetic. Irene Worth would go on to reprise the role of his mother Volumnia in Peter Hall's famous NT production. Volumnia can easily come across as a High Tory hag, the sort of woman who handed out white feathers to non-combatants in the First World War, but Worth plays her as a misguided but by no means unloving product of a patriarchal society.
There is a remarkable and much-discussed scene in Coriolanus during which the exiled hero joins forces with his former arch-enemy, the Volscian leader Aufidius (Mike Gwilym). The frankly homoerotic imagery of the dream that Aufidius relates to his new ally has often inspired directors to sexualize their earlier fight scene, and Moshinsky does so with great effect. More unusually, Coriolanus' death at the hands of Volscian conspirators has been replaced by a scene in which the hero is stabbed to death by Aufidius himself after a long face-to-face struggle - an assisted suicide rather than an assassination.
Not all of Moshinsky's innovations are successful. He falls into the trap of treating long asides as voice-overs, which makes absolutely no sense when Coriolanus is urging on his soldiers or greeting his wife and mother when they try to dissuade him from attacking Rome. But on the whole this Coriolanus is a welcome addition to the ever-growing selection of Shakespeare on DVD.