The way to test a great work of art is to ask how it survives decontextualisation, transposition into a new context. One good definition of a classic is that it functions like the eyes of God in an Orthodox icon: no matter where you stand in the room, they seem to be looking at you. For instance, by far the best cinema version of a Dostoevsky novel is Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot, which is set in Japan after the Second World War with Myshkin played as a returning soldier. The point is not simply that we are dealing with an eternal conflict that appears in all societies but that, with each new context, a classic work of art seems to address the very specific qualities of that epoch.
There is a long history of such successful transpositions of Shakespeare: to mention just a few modern film versions, Othello in a contemporary jazz club (Basil Dearden’s All Night Long, 1962); Richard III in an imagined fascist UK of the 1930s (Richard Loncraine, 1995); Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, set in Venice Beach, California (1996); Hamlet in corporate New York (Michael Almereyda, 2000).
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus poses a special challenge to recontextualisation: the play is so exclusively focused on its hero’s militaristic, aristocratic pride and contempt for ordinary people that one can easily see why, after the German defeat in 1945, the Allied occupying power prohibited its performance. Indeed, the play seems to offer a rather narrow interpretative choice. What are the alternatives to staging the play the way it is, surrendering to its anti-democratic allure?
For his forthcoming film adaptation, Ralph Fiennes (with the writer John Logan) has done the impossible, confirming in the process T S Eliot’s claim that Coriolanus is superior to Hamlet. He has fully broken out of the closed circle of interpretative options and presented Coriolanus not as a fanatical anti-democrat but as a figure of the radical left.
Fiennes’s first move was to change the play’s geopolitical co-ordinates. Rome is now a contemporary colonial city state in crisis and the Volscians are leftist guerrilla rebels, organised in what, today, we would call a “rogue state”. The effects of this are felt in many luminous details, such as the decision to present the border between the territory held by the Roman army and the one held by the rebels as an access ramp on a highway, a kind of guerrilla checkpoint. (One can dream further here: how about fully exploiting the film having been shot in Serbia by making Belgrade the “city that called itself Rome”, imagining the Volscians as Albanians from Kosovo and Coriolanus as a Serb general who changes sides to join the Albanians?)
[Extract. Appeared in New Statesman, on December 12th, 2011. (full text).]