Legendary British actor Ralph Fiennes tackles CORIOLANUS, known as one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays, as his directorial debut; bringing the story into a modern-day setting and boasting a spectacular cast which includes Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox (and of course himself).
On Sunday Fiennes attended a special screening of Coriolanus at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, complimenting the film with an insightful, relaxed and entertaining Q&A. Being our home cinema, Take One were obviously on hand to record the proceedings. Please note the questions are not all ours…
Why did you choose CORIOLANUS as your directorial debut?
Well, I played Coriolanus a number of years ago on stage, and since then I felt that I had unfinished business with the role. I just seemed to have gathered this idea that it would work as quite a potent political thriller. I also feel that in the last ten or fifteen years that the events depicted in the film – continual warfare, political manipulation, a crisis of leadership, economic uncertainty, distress – all these themes play in it; and in the centre you have the mother and son relationship which is key. In the end that is what moved me the most when I saw the play years ago, with Ian McKellen – all this arrives at a fundamental moment between a mother and son, and it works on so many levels.
What did you find challenging or edifying about making CORIOLANUS?
I knew [directing and acting in the same film] was a bit mad, but what kept me afloat and to some extent happy was everyone around me. The collaborative energy, the combined skills and talent. We developed a symbiosis; a shorthand developed with the designers and staff. The key person was [screenwriter] John Logan. When I first started there weren’t many people rushing around longing to be part of the making of CORIOLANUS; I met with some incredibly blank stares. I persevered, and eventually met and pitched it to John – he loves Shakespeare, his background is in the theatre – and very quickly I could sense that he ‘got’ it, and was very enthusiastic. We began to meet to discuss the transition from play to film.
Were you tempted to dispense with the Shakespearian language and use modern language instead?
That was certainly a question from the very beginning. I find Shakespearian language thrilling. The difficulty with it is the same that you find with a complex painting or a piece of music or a book. It pushes you to rise to the challenge and engage your ear. It’s not always on a plate. My own personal belief is that there is a misconception with Shakespeare; people believe that Shakespearian language is just Old English. I think it is, but only to a certain extent. Often, actually, his prose and verse is very accessible. I think with one of his later plays like CORIOLANUS, Shakespeare is actually experimenting with verse, is doing a Picasso with English language. Some things just won’t fly on a first hearing. Shakespeare lovers and people who want to rise to the challenge will thrill at it. We did a test screening and there was a spectrum of opinion.
“…I think with CORIOLANUS Shakespeare is experimenting with verse, is doing a Picasso with the English language.”
One of the most interesting aspects was ‘the rabble’ and the identification between the main protagonist and the people.
Some people are very ambivalent and go on a switchback of affiliation with either the rabble or Coriolanus. A good director gets a sense of the shifts within the crowd – it is hard to catch. There are waves of energy, where they are swept off by some primitive force. I think Shakespeare was frightened by a large, angry mob of people. I don’t think he is telling us that we should despise the people at all, but wanted to look at the different ranges of emotion we can have. We’re all people, we’re all human. Was [Coriolanus] noble, or was he a butcher? Probably both.
Is there anything you did not achieve with CORIOLANUS?
I’ll always have an ongoing dissatisfaction with any performance. We made it under pressure, so things are snatched and grabbed. I had an obsession with clarity, especially with sound and voice, and I wondered if it was as clear as I would have liked it to be.
I loved the fact that the news reporters speak in verse. Was this deliberate?
It was John Logan who crystallised the use of media and journalism. There was obviously a lot of discussion about how we would use the role of the messengers in the play. I thought that the verse matches the phrasing and intonation that newscasters use; no-one that I met could satisfy what I wanted, the newscasters’ delivery. Someone suggested Jon Snow, so he came down – he didn’t tell Channel Four he was going to the BBC to shoot it! I bullied Jon, but he got it perfectly. I don’t hear the iamb, I hear the modern day phrasing in the verse.
When I did it on stage, I did play too strongly the sheer contempt for the people in the market place. Then I saw Alan Howard’s performance, which showed me another angle. He does a brilliant thing: he’s sort of embarrassed and his contempt is a protection. To be in that proximity to those people he dislikes, […] if you play it all on an overt sneer there’s nowhere to go. There are moments when he encounters other people, and he doesn’t have a vocabulary for dealing with them. He has deep, tragic limitations as a human being.
Did you intend to focus your adaptation on a particular aspect of the story?
There are many strands you can’t afford to drop, but the thing that underpins it is the relationship with the mother. So I had to just get one of the best actresses I could and not let her down. We all come from mothers. We’ve all had an umbilical cord. The fact that this bellybutton had this thing on it… nobody in the room can escape that. [Vanessa Redgrave’s] performance has an intimacy to it, and she has a delicacy in the way she expresses her beliefs. “Had I a dozen sons, I had rather eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action
“…the thing that underpins it is the relationship with the mother. We all come from mothers. We’ve all had an umbilical cord. The fact that this bellybutton had this thing on it… nobody in the room can escape that.”
The idea of a character damaged by war, almost mad through violence, we couldn’t help but think about APOCALYPSE NOW…
It did come up in conversation(!) We were riffing on Coriolanus, and John and I both together found ourselves saying “Kurtz”. So I guess I could say there was a bit of an homage.
You got some excellent performances out of some very unlikely people, for instance James Nesbitt. Were you involved in casting?
I did do the casting. There was no one corporate entity dictating. You help yourself if you get people who are [well] known, but for the most part I was able to cast who I wanted. I had a casting director but the final choice is the director’s!
Was it an advantage, making it on film, or did you miss out on anything from the theatre?
I didn’t miss it; one of the things implicit is a naturalistic delivery. The rhetoric and anger were theatrical – the explosion in the TV studio had huge theatrical power – but the detail and subtlety I loved, those scenes were like plusses to me. Vanessa Redgrave has real subtlety and speaks quietly, so has real power on film. I have no regrets.
Finally, is the unfinished business with CORIOLANUS resolved now that you have completed the film?
I don’t think I’ll be playing it again! [On stage,] feeling the interior world of an emotionally stunted man – he doesn’t let the audience in much, but there’s something so gratifying about playing his extreme anger.
CORIOLANUS is currently on general release, and should be playing at your nearest Picturehouse, or arts cinema.