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Being Human 2015: Coriolanus Screening Review

Alya Omar Study

“[Coriolanus] explores the competing pressures of military conflict and political advancement against and explosive social background marked by themes of hunger, poverty, and desperation,” says Dr. Paul Frazer, in his introduction to the film.

On the 12th of November I attended my first ever Being Human event: a screening of Coriolanus (2011) at the Tyneside Cinema. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect going in, and quite frankly, I was nervous. I’ve never ever touched the play, and the only exposure I had was a short snippet in class last year, as well as bits and pieces from articles related the 2013 production (starring Tom Hiddleston) but hey, at least there was free popcorn!

The film, directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes presents Coriolanus in a more modern context, complete with television and machine guns. There were various scenes in the film that struck me as something that was easily applicable to the conflicts of the modern world, as well as the general attitude of the Roman citizens. Needless to say, I found myself liking the film more than I thought I would. Plus, Gerard Butler was in the film too (he plays Coriolanus’ frenemy Tullus Aufidius), which basically sent my heart fluttering away into the breeze when he made his appearance on-screen.

The screening was followed a post-film discussion led by Dr. Paul Frazer and Dr. Monika Smialkowska. Among the things discussed were how the location of the film (it was filmed in Belgrade, Serbia) added weight to the movie, and the relationship between media manipulation and the citizens of Rome and how what we’ve seen seeps into our everyday reality.

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“He [Coriolanus’ son] was very much into the soldier thing,” observes Dr. Monika at one point during the post-film session. “But the physicality of hum was very soft […] almost girlish, so it’s interesting how he’s being moulded.”

We also talked about the character of Coriolanus himself, such as how he’s only able to think in absolutes and is incapable of doing two things at once. His character also raised various questions: How does the public perceive him? Was he really a hero? Is he just a mommy’s boy? No one can really say for sure. Similarly, there was some talk about his mother, Volumnia, and their relationship in comparison to his wife and kid. Likewise, we discussed how we could maybe see her role as a representation of ‘Rome’, with links to the wolfish masculine mother which forms the predominant premise of the play and how Coriolanus isn’t just tied to Volumnia, but also the civilization that he’s come from.

It was interesting to see different opinions across the room (or should I say the cinema), because each person had their own input on how Coriolanus resonated with them (someone even said he found the film very unsatisfying politics-wise because of how things turned out!) Overall, this experience was something that helped improve my understanding of today’s issues, especially in light of recent events.

Dr. Paul was kind enough to answer a few questions of my own in a brief interview. He discusses topics such as what he hopes the audience takes away from the experience, and what ‘Being Human’ means to him. Have a look below! 

1)      In your own words, how do the themes in Coriolanus (e.g. class struggle, identity, honour, politics…) resonate with the issues of today’s world? That being said, how can we, the audience, improve ourselves with those issues in mind?

Several themes inShakespeare’s play seem to correlate with a range of cultural processes and events proximate to twenty-first century life in the UK and beyond.  What Fiennes’s 2011 adaptation does brilliantly is that it translates themes of exile, banishment, socio-political unrest, rebellion, and terrorism from ancient Rome to contemporary Europe.  Watch any news summary today, and you cannot escape traumatic stories of displacement and conflict – to a more heightened extent than we have seen since the Second World War.  That Fiennes’s film speaks to more recent conflict in the Middle East and Syria in particular, underscores the relevance of this text to “today” in very foreboding and uncomfortable ways.

2)      What would you like the audience to take away from the event’s overall experience (either from the screening, or the festival as a whole)?

I hope that the audience felt challenged to think about Shakespearean plays not as dead relics of a literary ‘golden age’, but as living texts that can still speak to contemporary concerns in powerful ways.  Our discussion about the merits of Fiennes’s appropriation also, I hope, illuminated some of the ways in which Shakespearean appropriations can (and perhaps should)use the cultural capital of Shakespeare to explore current issues and events.  For me, quite often Shakespearean stage and film adaptations can be self-indulgent, whimsical, and esoteric – basking in (and often hiding behind) the rhetoric of archaic language and impenetrable cultural references.  In contrast, this adaptation relocates Shakespeare in political environs that inform and frame our times, in quite visceral and unflinching ways.

3)      What are your hopes for the humanities in the future, especially in relation to Shakespeare?

Most importantly, the idea of artistic expression needs to take its rightful place at the heart of our intellectual cultures.  Knowledge of history, politics, literature, art and wider cultural practices beyond the sciences can (and does) teach our students to question the ideologies that shape the worlds they live in.  When a culture starts to reduce and prohibit cultural learning about the humanities, we should think carefully about its reasons for doing so, and about the lasting damage of such processes.  As far as Shakespeare is concerned, my hope is that we continue reading these texts with enquiring minds, using them to think about social, political, and ethical dimensions of twenty-first century life.

4)      Lastly, what does ‘Being Human’ mean to you?

The ‘Being Human’ festival is important because it showcases some of the dynamic and intellectually varied strengths of teaching and research in the humanities.  Understanding the ‘human’ aspects of the world forces us to think about our societies, their histories, and our future trajectories.  Being human in the democratic and ‘free’ ideological cultures that our governments lay claim to, means having and using the freedom to think critically about literary texts within and against our own cultural moments.

Being Human is the only festival for Humanities for the UK. For more information about the event, you can visit the website at http://beinghumanfestival.org/

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