CORIOLANUS

OUR CONTEMPORARY?

 

Ton Hoenselaars

 

Review

 

Coriolanus by RO Theater, Rotterdam, The Netherlands [seen at Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam, 23 October 1996].

 

Coriolanus has never been a very popular play in the Low Countries, and the half-filled auditorium at the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg, with depleted forces after the interval, strongly suggested that the travelling production from Rotterdam has done little to change that. Since this Roman tragedy was first written, there have been only three professional productions on the Dutch stage (in 1899, 1960 and 1978), excluding, of course, the much-praised Royal Shakespeare Company's travelling production of 1977-1978, featuring Alan Howard as Coriolanus in black chamois leather. Terpstra presented the audience with a radically rewritten version of the difficult tragedy, a devalued version of the Shakespeare original. Its language had been simplified, new dialogue had been grafted onto Shakespeare's, and the occasional comic sequence added. If a kind of tradition could be discerned, it was in terms of Terpstra's own social commitment. Shakespeare's concerns had been curiously translated to the present day, and Coriolanus was presented as our contemporary, to be liked or loathed.

In the Terpstra production of Coriolanus, Shakespeare's proud nobleman was transformed into a confused, indolent and listless adolescent, an introvert, a fluffy-bearded beer drinker, his greasy hair in a tail, and dressed in fashionable red leather trousers symbolic of his anger. In this production, elocution was far from Coriolanus's forte. His speech presentation was as slothful as his carriage was listless. No sharp rhetorical edge characterized the Roman protagonist. He had none of the physical poise that actors like Laurence Olivier, Alan Howard, Kenneth Branagh and Toby Stephens once brought to the part, making us believe that these were actually the inalienable hallmarks of Shakespeare's eponymous hero. Maartje Somers, reviewing the production for Het Parool, recognized the assault on the play's original "grandeur", but found that Terpstra's shock tactics yielded valuable new insights on this occasion.[1] This was no longer a play about Rome, but a dramatic episode about our present-day McDonald's generation whose members have never had to fight in any way, and who have come to find war beneath their dignity. Terpstra's Romans were the contented citizens of a media-ridden welfare state. They lived in "the country where people know everything" as one of the play's new lines had it. Like those modern television audiences that crowd to the studio recordings of talk shows like Rickie Lake's or Jerry Springer's, the Romans defined civic freedom as the opportunity to exchange sordid detail in public. Not surprisingly, perhaps, these Romans' frame of reference was the cartoon, as became clear from the way in which the announcement of the Volscian threat in the Terpstra adaptation was conveyed. These Romans had been keeping up on military matters in the periphery of the empire by reading the adventures of Asterix:

— Things have got out of hand. The Volscians are attacking.
— The what?
— Yes, the Volscians.
— All those names one has never heard of, as in cartoons. And all of a sudden they turn out to be aggressive. Do not touch us. We are Volscians.
— That's all very nice, but those Volscians are attacking us, and that is no cartoon story.

Frank Lammers's Coriolanus was a singular, since actually bored, member of this society. To him, therefore, the war was a rare chance to break free from his stifling environment, to leave behind the city's wimps. But leaving Rome and achieving success proved easier than coming home. In fact, the listless Roman had, as Noor Hellmann put it in the NRC review, been made a hero against his will.[2] Also, while the city bestowed its praise on Coriolanus — essentially to celebrate its own masterful managing of civic duties in letting him go to war — the hero was unexpectedly required to recognize the merits of the sedate and self-satisfied population whose property he had become when they created the conditions for him to gain notoriety. His cowardly friends ("tell us, it must be exciting, a war and all that ...") in a deft move born out of pusillanimity even went so far as to claim part of the city's newly achieved honours. As they put it in the Terpstra version of Coriolanus: "We have kept the city going in your absence. Yes, you see, life goes on. We have even had to do your work while you were away". In a wry encounter with the populace, Coriolanus now had to ingratiate himself with the society that he had meant to flee.

If the audience was prepared to lodge its sympathy with Coriolanus, however, his churlishness prevented such an obvious bestowal of sympathy. This Coriolanus delivered the full range of his market-place lines in a single loud wail, without relief, without any nuance whatsoever. He could only distance himself from the audience as the bitter debate in public proceeded. And when, in an attempt to stress his unusual candour, he romped about the set naked, the alienation of Frank Lammers's Coriolanus from both the Romans and the Amsterdam theatre audience was complete, and there was no hope of relief or any other form of restoration. A lack of directorial control was the main reason for this dramatic breakdown, and neither the later scene with a cynical and solid Aufidius nor those with a youthful Volumnia could relegate the memory of an uncouth Coriolanus to oblivion. Ironically, Lammers's primitive and stumbling Coriolanus was the embodiment of the very dread, the very nightmare that troubled the self-willed and disdainful aristocrat in Shakespeare's original. This is precisely what Shakespeare's character had feared man might turn into if he gave up his principles. For a brief moment, therefore, this contemporary alter ego of Shakespeare's hero seemed to justify the latter's defensive pride vis-à-vis the Roman populace and senate.

If the choice to present Coriolanus as a peasant raised in an urban medialand made one wonder if the phrase "You can't kill Shakespeare" might not be overly optimistic, this is not to say that the Terpstra production was without redeeming features. The supporting cast was very strong, with Joop Keesmaat's autoritative and above all composed Menenius as a most memorable part. Keesmaat conquered the audience with what may only be described as an uncommonly tranquil speaking voice and fine, crisp diction. No less remarkable about the production was Terpstra's presentation of warfare. As Marian Buijs noted, this fitted to a tee the type of society, the hollow Rome, that had produced the Terpstra/Lammers Coriolanus.[3] There were no clumsy sword fights. There were no traditional weapons whatsoever. Instead, nervous strobe lighting, the resonant howl of an air raid alarm, and coloured fumes suggested a synthetic fight of the kind that Ronald Reagan or George Bush might have invented. No dirty war. No apparent enemy. The war against the Volscians had all the makings of a live concert by Kiss or Queen. The extensive visual manipulation was facilitated by a largely empty set that dwarfed the characters and stressed the void that was the Roman empire.

Of considerable interest, too, about this four-hour adaptation of Coriolanus was that it had a number of newly composed soliloquies and dialogues. Though not generally liked by the critics, these additional speeches had a definite appeal since Terpstra has the gift of the word and is a master of tone. For example, there was a modern opening soliloquy with Volumnia speaking on Europe as the guilty continent. Given the association between ancient Rome and the modern West pursued by Terpstra, it was pertinent to set off against each other Europe and its colonizing ambitions on the one hand, and, on the other, ancient Rome, whose ambition it had once been to make Europe its colony. Volumnia's soliloquy also turned on racism, on the Other defined by the subjective standards of our own cultural convictions, and on the plight of the loving mother left alone once her son becomes a hero. But to keep the audience from taking the Freudian suggestions too seriously, the soliloquy was fittingly interrupted by a frisky Coriolanus, a happy young man enjoying the domestic life at home, self-consciously and metatheatrically introducing himself to the audience with the words: "And I am the son". No less apt and effective was the disdain that Coriolanus's friends expressed for the hero by abbreviating his name to "Co", a diminutive lacking to a Dutch ear any of the patrician connotations that one might have associated with Shakespeare's hero.

In some ways, this was an intelligent and thought-provoking production, prepared with an eye to contemporary western history, but also with an eye to the daily news. To make this clear, the program contained long excerpts from the diary of the production's literary advisor, Max van Engen. Interestingly, the program captures the atmosphere of the first days and weeks on the Coriolanus project during the hot summer months of 1996, and it effectively focuses the mind on unexpected potential in the play as Van Engen views and analyses national and international news events against the background of the early discussions and rehearsals of Shakespeare's Roman play. Thus Van Engen makes the Dutch team's experiences during the European soccer championships in Great Britain meaningful for an understanding of Coriolanus. He manages to do so not just by alluding to the Dutch phrase that "football is war", but also to the racially biased scapegoating that occurred among the players. Van Engen further recounts how, in the company of an army psychologist convinced that you cannot prepare for any war, the actors were made to go over the Dutch tragedy in the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Equally, the crew spoke to an anonymous Vietnamese freedom fighter; were made to contemplate the resignation in The Hague of wonderboy politician, secretary of state Robert Lintschoten, who had forfeited the government's confidence; and met Yvonne van Gennip, the Dutch skating champion who won three gold medals during the Winter Olympics at Calgary, and who felt surprisingly lost and lonely when the crowds cheered her on her return to Holland. Yet, the further attempts in the program to explain Coriolanus with reference to sports news — the men's single victory at Wimbledon by Richard Krajicek, and the declining strength of Miguel Indurain — confirmed the impression, also created by the stage performance, that the Rotterdam production of Shakespeare's Roman history involved a certain reduction of the play's complexities to the level of the late-20th-century newsreel rather than an attempt to integrate the relevance of current events into a broader historical pattern. Making Coriolanus our contemporary is certainly not the same as making the modern audience contemporaries of Coriolanus.

 

NOTES

1 Maartje Somers, "Patatgeneratie", Het Parool, 7 October 1996.

2 Noor Hellmann, "Lid van de patatgeneratie wordt ongewild Romeinse held", in NRC/Handelsblad, 8 October 1996.

3 Marian Buijs, "Coriolanus van Terpstra snijdt grote problemen aan", in De Volkskrant, 7 October 1996.

 

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