Nottingham Shakespeare Society
January 21st ‘Coriolanus’ – a reading
Commentary by Julia Pirie
At roughly 3,824 lines long, ‘Coriolanus’ is only about 200 lines shorter than Shakespeare’s longest play, ‘Hamlet’. At an estimate of 1 000 lines an hour reading time, both these, and many other of his plays, far exceed the ‘two hours’ traffic of (the) stage’. Even ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at 3,093 words would have overrun itself by its own Prologue’s estimation if played uncut.
Sandra did a great job of cutting the script for this reading by over half. It made perfect sense. Following on from our meeting in which Dr Burton’s talk largely focussed on the role of the Citizens, I felt Sandra’s version gave the audience renewed insight into Coriolanus’s character and his relationship with his mother, his peers (the Senate) and his nemesis, Aufidius.
Volumnia had been briefly discussed in our previous meeting. She is proud of her only son and fiercely protective of his military reputation. She would rather have him die to have ‘his good report’, than have him survive ‘voluptuously … out of action’. She’d even rather have her grandson ‘see the swords, and hear the drum, than look upon his schoolmaster.’ Hearing her speeches, I felt one understood better Coriolanus’s attitude both to battle and politics. As usual John gave a strong performance, spitting out his soldier’s impatience and contempt, blind to the civil outcome of his behaviour, both in Rome and then later in Corioli.
In the scene where his mother begs him not to attack Rome, I therefore found it strange – and perhaps out of character – that he finally succumbs to her tears and entreaties. You can imagine what Lady Macbeth might say about this rather milksoppy behaviour. I wonder perhaps if part of Coriolanus’s fatal flaw lies, as Hamlet’s does, in the relationship with his mother.
Aufidius (Douglas also relishing the cut and thrust of the lines) finds himself at first delighted to side against Rome in support his lifelong foe. Later it seems it is a mixture of jealousy (Coriolanus seemed to outshine Aufidius even among the Volscian army) and disgust that Coriolanus has changed his mind influenced by ‘certain drops of salt’ that leads Aufidius to support the Conspirators. Strange again, though, his sudden volte face in the final lines of the play when he promises the ‘Insolent villain’ who ‘Hath widowed and unchilded many a one’ in Corioli a ‘noble memory.’
Everyone tackled their parts with imagination and gusto with the usual doubling/trebling of roles. Many of us shed years to play sons and grandsons! Virgilia (Shannon) nearly shed tears, being forced to kneel by her (slightly!) younger mother-in-law. Colin’s segue from Cominius to 1st Conspirator by the addition of a black beanie was inspired. The ‘Crowd’ was at times rather thin, though its voice was occasionally boosted by additional input from the audience. However, for me the biggest impact of the evening’s reading came from Nuala’s and Di’s reading of the people’s tribunes, Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus. They truly brought to life these two wily politicians. We saw and heard them, plotting together, toadying to Menenius then goading (Sicinius’s verb) the people to discredit Coriolanus for their own political advancement. Dr Burton’s talk had raised issues of the plays’ political echoes– both in contemporary England and in today’s world – and these I felt came over strongly this evening.
Thanks to Sandra for organising the reading and to all those who took parts as well as those members who supported them.
I am sure we are looking forward to Anthony’s talk on ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ on February 4th. Only 2,558 lines long, it offers a bit of lighter relief (though not, of course, without darker moments) after all this tragedy.