The Blagger's Guide To... Coriolanus

Splatter-fan politicos – this one's for you

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The Independent Culture

* Ralph Fiennes's new film of Shakespeare's Coriolanus opened this weekend in UK cinemas, meaning that Shakespeare might overtake Dickens as the dead British author whose estate most benefits from a film-related sales boost this January. Fiennes's version relocates the Roman tragedy to the modern-day Balkans; it was filmed in and around Belgrade. Fiennes both directs and stars in the film, but for someone who has apparently aced one of the Bard's most political plays, the actor is surprisingly apolitical. "I always feel innately disappointed by politicians," he told an interviewer last week.

* Vanessa Redgrave stars as Volumnia, Coriolanus's mother.

* This is Fiennes's directorial debut, but he has been planning to direct a film for many years, he says, and he is no stranger to this play. In 2000, he played Coriolanus for the first time for the Almeida theatre. His co-star, Paul Jessen, who plays Brutus, also played the general in a 1998 BBC radio production, and appeared as First Citizen (who has the first line in the play) in the 1984 TV drama The Tragedy of Coriolanus.

* Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus early in the 17th century, probably between 1608 and 1610. As with many of his plays, the source material is gathered from various earlier writers: Thomas North's translation of "The Life of Coriolanus" in Plutarch's Lives of the Greeks and Romans (1579); William Camden's Remaines (1605); and possibly some of the Roman historian Livy's Ab Urbe Condita Libri (27-25BC).

* Set in Ancient Rome, it opens as the citizens are rioting because their proud, rich emperor is withholding grain from the ordinary people. Relevant at almost any time in British history, then. Perhaps what the current government needs is a hastily-arranged war on Corioles.

* Other actors who have played Coriolanus include Laurence Olivier (twice), whose – spoiler alert! – famous death scene at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959 ended up with him hanging upside down from a platform. Anthony Hopkins also had a go, as did Richard Burton, Ian McKellen, Christopher Walken and Morgan Freeman.

* Bryan A Garner's essay, "Shakespeare's Latinate Neologisms", names 22 Shakespearian neologisms in Coriolanus. Among these are: birthplace, petition (as a verb), reinforcement, spectacled, unclog (although the word "clog" had been around a while) and widowed.

* The actor who plays Coriolanus gets several lines in the play about being an actor. Among them: "Would you have me False to my nature? Rather say I play The man I am." (Act III Scene II, line 14) And: "Like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part, and I am out, Even to a full disgrace." (Act V Scene III, line 40)

* The play was briefly banned in France in the 1930s because it had become associated with Fascist tendencies. "In the past it has been linked with fascist ideology. But that's not the right way to go," Fiennes has said. "It's a story of loss and waste and devastation. Shakespeare is about provoking questions as opposed to telling you which way to vote, so to give it any overtly pro- or anti-fascist slant is wrong."

* Fiennes has promised that there will be plenty of blood.