Ibishblog guest post: Seth Duerr responds to my Coriolanus post

[NOTE: Two days after I posted my take on Coriolanus and the new Fiennes interpretation of it, I received the following exceptionally thoughtful and insightful response from Seth Duerr, Artistic Director of The York Shakespeare Company in New York City. As he notes, Seth approaches these plays from a completely different perspective than I do, since he is a professional actor and director who specializes in Shakespeare's work. From that unusual but indispensible angle, he adds many new dimensions to the conversation about the play and the film. In particular, having directed himself in the role of Coriolanus, Seth disagrees with my view of the character as an impossible and insufferable one that cannot function in his society or be identified with by most readers and audiences. Given his experiences with and reading of the play, Seth argues that, on the contrary, Coriolanus is indeed an accessible and sympathetic character, and it is rigid Roman society that is simply unwilling to accept him as he is. With his permission, I am posting Seth's entire commentary below as an Ibishblog guest post and I'm deeply grateful to him for taking the time to explain his exceptionally well-informed perspective.]

I hope that everyone with even a passing interest in Shakespeare gets to see the film and read your comprehensive analysis. If they stuck with the conversation thusfar, then I imagine some further commentary may be welcome.

Firstly, I concur with virtually all of the analysis. The following thoughts are more addition than dissension. Secondly, I approach this from a rather different arena and hope to shed some light on the murkier challenges offered by the playwright from the perspective of a theatrical practitioner. For your readers' edification, I am the Artistic Director of The York Shakespeare Company, charged with the same duties that Mr. Fiennes assigned himself on this project, and directed the play for the stage, playing the title role in 2002. Hopefully, I can clarify how the play is meant to work, share a different way of looking at the title role and explain, from a professional standpoint, the demons with which Fiennes was struggling.

Your initial statement that the film “has much to offer, especially if it can succeed in re-connecting parts of the public with an undeservedly neglected masterwork” is the main reason that the film is valuable. Despite my intense dislike of the script-cutting and the consequent one-dimensionality of the central performance, the very idea that we’re having a discourse about this play is spectacular. Only a small percentage of the global population is familiar with the play, and most people dismiss it as problematic.

It is the “problem plays” of Shakespeare that usually interest me the most. I do not choose to work on a play if I think it is a problem, as it is not my duty to “fix” them, merely to share great stories with an audience. As warning for the future, if you ever notice in the publicity/director notes for a production a description of the play as a “problem”, then save your time and money and don’t go. Otherwise, you will be in for an evening of the director’s condescension to the audience and devaluation of the playwright. The play will generally undergo cuts, additions and re-interpretations that would make the playwright roll over in his or her grave, or, if they are still alive, seriously ponder suicide(see our discussion of The Merchant of Venice and the abuse it has undergone in Shylock’s usurpation of a play that actually belongs to Portia).

Coriolanus spoke to me very early on in my career and I decided to produce it in my first rotating rep at York Shakespeare, with Timon of Athens, Henry V and King Lear. We generally work in the classical Actor-Manager system, an increasingly obscure term used to describe leading actors who also produce the plays and handle the duties ascribed to what we have termed since the 1870’s as “director." As film took over the storytelling landscape, theater was necessarily impacted, and it became more and more rare for the leading actor and the director to be the same individual. While film is rightfully the medium of the director, theater fares better as the medium of the playwright and actor. Fiennes, with this film, has simply tried to revive a dying approach. While actor-managers were generally ubiquitous and revered for the last half-millennium (Garrick, Kean, Kemble, Forbes-Robertson, Irving, Forrest, several Booths, Beerbohm-Tree, Olivier, Welles, Gielgud, to name but a few), the rise of the Director has made them exceedingly rare. No wonder then that Fiennes had such a difficult time working in an all-but-dead profession. Kenneth Branagh seemed poised to take up the proverbial mantle in the late 80’s, but even he has found this process to be so complicated that his output as actor-manager has been less and less frequent over the last few decades. Every so often, someone like Fiennes comes along to breathe fresh air into the actor-manager system and sadly falls victim to its traps. Hopkins tried it, once. McKellen, once. All this is to say that I’ve been doing this consistently for the last decade and understand the predicament in which he placed himself and would like you to keep that in mind while examining his choices as director, producer and actor of this film.

As director/producer, Fiennes, and his screenwriter, John Logan, face two immediate dilemmas:

1)   How do we ensure that modern audiences, increasingly inculcated with attention-deficits created by the majority of film and television, will stay engaged in the story and avoid being distanced by Shakespearean language?

2)   Since Shakespeare works primarily in imagery and film is a visual medium, which images should the characters speak and which should just be shown?

As to the first issue, which rears its ugly head in the theatre as well, the answer is simple: clarity and pace. The length of plays like Coriolanus is deceptive. Despite the fact that it may take between three and four hours to play, uncut, it actually moves obscenely fast. Assuming that actors are speaking at the alleged rate of the Elizabethan performers: approximately 1,000 lines of verse per hour. Coriolanus contains 3,583 lines, so you do the math. Also, it is a common misnomer that Shakespeare’s plays are Middle English (e.g. The Canterbury Tales) or Old English (e.g. Beowulf). Shakespeare’s language is simply modern English with a more complex vocabulary and syntax. Shakespeare’s plays cannot function if actors and directors dumb down the script by over-explanation or retardation of speed. Your point on the virtual elimination of contractions is well taken here, a device that Shakespeare utilized more and more toward the end of his career, and which connotes even quicker pace than usual. Such truncated productions make for hideous experiences in any medium. I can certainly understand why Fiennes/Logan looked to modernization to fool us into accessing the world of the play, and you’re correct that the “contemporary Balkan setting is powerful and suggestive…[and]…the use of multi-media is ingenious and, mostly, surprisingly effective.” However, it was all for naught, as the cutting of the script to foster a running time of less than two hours completely destroyed any evidence of the real argument of the play and any understanding of it’s central role.

Think of all the films of Shakespeare’s plays. Now consider how very few of them actually work. Take a look at Branagh’s oeuvre: Henry V and Much Ado generally soar, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Hamlet almost completely fail. Or Taymor: Titus perhaps the greatest Shakespeare film, The Tempest possibly the worst. I’m not considering modernized adaptations like O, Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet or 10 Things I Hate About You, etc. as they’ve already chosen the easy way out of the language question and simply created a modern film influenced by the source material. Nor shall I discuss here the genius that is Kurosawa’s output. All of those are hit or miss, but are not germane to the instant discussion. The point is that, with modern versions in Shakespeare’s English, it is exceedingly difficult to strike the right balance of visual engagement and sufficient communication of the playwright’s story.

Which brings us to the second dilemma: the decision of which images to speak, which to show, and when to do both, is incredibly difficult to negotiate. While Taymor’s Titus and Branagh’s Henry V are always visually arresting, they are simultaneously very intelligent about which pieces of the text must remain for the playwright’s story to be effectively communicated. Bear in mind that before film and television, people went to go hear a play as much as see one. Even more so of the former was primary in Elizabethan England. Stage direction was so minimal by modern standards that your experience with eyes closed or open would be relatively similar. Good luck closing your eyes in the audience of a Shakespeare film and experiencing anything comprehensive after most directors/screenwriters hack the text to shreds.

I’d argue that Shakespeare and other great playwrights of the time would be filmmakers today. Character after character, speech after speech, images are projected from the actors’ mouths onto the screen that is the mind’s eye in each audience member. Film does the exact same thing, except with exponentially more images (generally a minimum of 24 frames per second) and more through visual means than aural. Note that theater certainly has a visual element, just as film has an aural one, and that all great storytelling must traverse this tightrope very carefully. While there are several thousand “heard images” provoked in a theatrical audience’s imagination at any given play, there are literally millions of actual images displayed on a movie screen. Now put yourself in the shoes of the people who must decide which of the 3,583 lines of imagery should be spoken, shown or both.

As a cinematic technique, I agree with your assessment that “many of the debates (that survive the extreme cuts in the text) are shifted to faux television news programming, and the like, with impressive results.” They certainly mimic the sense of urgency Shakespeare requires via a convention in which a modern audience has grown conditioned to respond (e.g. the brilliant use of media in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, a film which is perfect till the last ten minutes, or Orson Welles’ usage in The War of the Worlds broadcast.) However, the question is whether or not the modernization techniques used here were necessary. Based on the results, I’d have to say they were not. Plenty of period pieces are produced in film on television, with great effect, each year. There is nothing so very strange about Rome, and its period depictions on screen have often met with great success (Gladiator, Rome). 21st Century American audiences hardly require entrée into a world so very like our own. We are yet another permutation of a minority of Imperialist oligarchs ruling over a majority of lower and middle classes. Your point about the intelligence of this particular Roman mob is well taken. These are not the fools and simpletons on display in Henry VI Part Two, or, more to the point, the easily manipulated populous of Julius Caesar. It is evident from the brilliantly crafted first scene of the play (largely cut) that the citizens are highly intelligent and it takes great effort on the part of Menenius to sway them. You mention that “the imagery in Coriolanus relies on the heavy use of antithesis and contradiction, even oxymoron, to make its points, and a great deal of this gets lost in the multimedia extravaganza.” I would add, however, that the most unkindest cut of all was actually the use of synecdoche set up in the play’s opening, the linguistic technique of a part of something used to refer to the whole, or a whole used to refer to one or more of its parts.

That technique above all others illustrates the argument of the play and the tragedy its central role will undergo:


Either you must
Confess yourselves wondrous malicious,
Or be accused of folly. I shall tell you
A pretty tale: it may be you have heard it;
But, since it serves my purpose, I will venture
To stale 't a little more.

First Citizen

Well, I'll hear it, sir: yet you must not think to
fob off our disgrace with a tale: but, an 't please
you, deliver.


There was a time when all the body's members
Rebell'd against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I' the midst o' the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest, where the other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body. The belly answer'd–

First Citizen

Well, sir, what answer made the belly?


Sir, I shall tell you. With a kind of smile,
Which ne'er came from the lungs, but even thus–
For, look you, I may make the belly smile
As well as speak–it tauntingly replied
To the discontented members, the mutinous parts
That envied his receipt; even so most fitly
As you malign our senators for that
They are not such as you.

First Citizen

Your belly's answer? What!
The kingly-crowned head, the vigilant eye,
The counsellor heart, the arm our soldier,
Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter.
With other muniments and petty helps
In this our fabric, if that they–


What then?
'Fore me, this fellow speaks! What then? what then?

First Citizen

Should by the cormorant belly be restrain'd,
Who is the sink o' the body,–


Well, what then?

First Citizen

The former agents, if they did complain,
What could the belly answer?


I will tell you
If you'll bestow a small–of what you have little–
Patience awhile, you'll hear the belly's answer.

First Citizen

Ye're long about it.


Note me this, good friend;
Your most grave belly was deliberate,
Not rash like his accusers, and thus answer'd:
'True is it, my incorporate friends,' quoth he,
'That I receive the general food at first,
Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
Because I am the store-house and the shop
Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood,
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o' the brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live: and though that all at once,
You, my good friends,'–this says the belly, mark me,–

First Citizen

Ay, sir; well, well.


'Though all at once cannot
See what I do deliver out to each,
Yet I can make my audit up, that all
From me do back receive the flour of all,
And leave me but the bran.' What say you to't?

First Citizen

It was an answer: how apply you this?


The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members; for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o' the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves. What do you think,
You, the great toe of this assembly?

First Citizen

I the great toe! why the great toe?


For that, being one o' the lowest, basest, poorest,
Of this most wise rebellion, thou go'st foremost:
Thou rascal, that art worst in blood to run,
Lead'st first to win some vantage.
But make you ready your stiff bats and clubs:
Rome and her rats are at the point of battle;
The one side must have bale.

This entire exchange is deceptively amusing. Shakespeare, at the top of each and every one of his plays, makes clear the inciting action and how we should examine what follows. We are being asked to consider how the Rome of this play functions and what is reasonable to require of its individual members.

While the tragic flaw of Martius is certainly his pride, it is not what makes the play tragic. Rare in Shakespeare, but the tragedy comes from without more than within. The tragedy of the play is that the very society that Coriolanus has served unfairly requires personability, approachability, gratitude and likeability as items in his job description. Coriolanus’ service to Rome is beyond reproach, with each character at some point or other acknowledging that fact. Why then must this man conform to a list of “normal” behavior if it does not in any way affect his ability to perform the primary tasks of his soldiership and, in fact, may diminish those abilities should he pervert his nature? To put it another way, the question of the role and the play is “How much should society as a whole determine the behavior of any of its parts and how does the behavior of any one or more parts affect the whole of society?”

This question hardly requires modernization for a contemporary audience to comprehend and engage with the material. Take current attitudes all over the world on gay citizenry. Does society have the right to define whom its members may or may not sleep with or marry and, conversely, do the actions of gay citizens adversely affect society in any way, shape or form? In regards to the question of gay marriage, the left has pointed out more and more often that the right is on the wrong side of history. With each state (and country the world over) eventually approving gay marriage, the majority is adjusting. This occurs in the play as well. Despite a few tribunes having mild success contorting the plebeians views of Coriolanus, the citizens battle with this very deeply, and after Coriolanus displays himself in humility before them, they end up siding with him and decide that his personality should not affect his right to consulship. They are, briefly, on the right side of history. Unfortunately, the tribunes sway the citizens back to their conditioned attitudes on how people are supposed to behave. Part of the tragedy of the play is that Shakespeare illustrates such change on their part was/is possible.  Coriolanus is living in and serving a society not ready to accept him as he is. (N.B. the comparison to gay marriage and the homoerotic tones of the play are merely coincidental. For a much deeper exploration of a homosexual tragically rejected by religious and societal standards you should look to Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. Coriolanus defies sexual categorization and is most likely asexual more than any alternative option.)

This leads us to your claim that “Martius lacks or withholds from us any deep psychological motivations for his shifts and turns” and that he is “unsympathetic”. This is the main point on which I must disagree with you. In the instances where the philosophical/psychological/emotional/intellectual argument above is clearly staged, an audience will quite easily sympathize with Coriolanus as they will find the citizenry and especially the tribunes as hideous, prejudiced and damning as Coriolanus does. If anything, his motivations and nature are all too simple and clear. He is the chosen protagonist specifically because we are supposed to view the play’s society through his eyes. He is, by nature, an outsider, and a lot of behavior can be forgiven when a character is understood. As for his endless invective, he merely calls a spade a spade. This, too, is in service of his country; he is quite an honest physician. As to your point, that “Coriolanus does not trust language, does not know how to use it properly, and is constantly betrayed by its subtleties”, I would argue the exact opposite. Faced with the prospect of battling his sword or his tongue, I’d certainly select the former. Again, this is the fault of cutting. The Coriolanus Fiennes/Logan have offered is quite a blunt and stupid instrument; Shakespeare’s character is not. The verbal/philosophical Olympics of Act III are the greatest evidence:


O good but most unwise patricians! why,
You grave but reckless senators, have you thus
Given Hydra here to choose an officer,
That with his peremptory 'shall,' being but
The horn and noise o' the monster's, wants not spirit
To say he'll turn your current in a ditch,
And make your channel his? If he have power
Then vail your ignorance; if none, awake
Your dangerous lenity. If you are learn'd,
Be not as common fools; if you are not,
Let them have cushions by you. You are plebeians,
If they be senators: and they are no less,
When, both your voices blended, the great'st taste
Most palates theirs. They choose their magistrate,
And such a one as he, who puts his 'shall,'
His popular 'shall' against a graver bench
Than ever frown in Greece. By Jove himself!
It makes the consuls base: and my soul aches
To know, when two authorities are up,
Neither supreme, how soon confusion
May enter 'twixt the gap of both and take
The one by the other.

Note how, several acts since the opening, synecdoche is still the primary linguistic tool. Additionally, regard how precise and insightful Coriolanus is as diagnostician.

Finally, we are left with the question of Fiennes’ acting. Our entire experience of the play comes down to how clearly we understand Coriolanus as a victim of his society. This is one of the reasons I produced it in rotating repertory with Timon of Athens as they are mathematical complements. They both center on two characters on either end of the behavioral spectrum, one exceedingly standoffish the other extremely friendly, who are used and discarded by society, self-banished and search out death. I found that these two plays informed each other quite well and our audiences had much clearer access to the arguments-at-hand. Like Richard II, a play I’ve put on many times, Shakespeare usually displays extreme antithesis, and the only way out of unhealthy behavior for a protagonist is to throw away extremity and find some semblance of moderation.  However, unlike Timon’s sociopathic generosity and Richard’s egotistical tyranny, it would be profoundly flawed to presume that Coriolanus’ behavior is ‘wrong’ or ‘extreme’.

Fiennes/Logan’s greatest misstep was the almost complete elimination of the title role. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s largest roles at 872 lines, which means that he speaks 25% of all play’s lines. He, alone, is a full quarter of a very large play. With a profoundly cut central role the arguments of the play and the role cannot be properly explored. I suspect that Fiennes lacks the ego of most of the great actor-managers, which is healthier than it sounds. He may very well have wanted to appear a team player and/or remove from audiences’/critics’ minds the phrase “vanity project.” Certainly, no one could accuse him of stealing this film and suppressing his supporting actors. Redgrave handily walks away with the movie, upsetting the balance of the story, and while it’s a genius performance, titling the film anything other than “Volumnia” is tantamount to false advertising.

I saw Fiennes play Coriolanus under the expert direction of Jonathan Kent, in both England and the U.S. I mention this as it means that I’ve seen proof that he knows exactly what to do with the role and how it fits into the story as a whole. He did this in rep with Richard II, also brilliant played. I only mention the latter, as his Richard was far more affecting when I saw him England and his Coriolanus more so when he played it here. Further evidence, I think, that Coriolanus is particularly accessible to a modern U.S. audience.

As for the actual playing of the role, Coriolanus is an outsider, and in many ways cruel. However, so many characters with whom we sympathize could be described this way: Richard II, Richard III, Iago, Lear, John Proctor, Sweeney Todd, Salieri. The very fact that we understand them during the course of the play and see society through their eyes is what makes their respective plays sing. Strange that we can value Fiennes’ portrayal of Goeth in Schindler’s List or Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise, and yet he distrusts our ability to sympathize with Coriolanus without extensive cutting.

It is unfortunate that Fiennes did not trust himself and the playwright enough to present an unencumbered view of the play and its central role. What a great step forward for Shakespeare on film such an event may have been.