That’s right – in a Games of Thrones-calibre twist, the battle to be the 2012 touring Shakespeare suddenly admits a previously unknown competitor!

I’ve never seen anything like it.  There we were, just about to watch Pericles compete with Cymbeline, both late-pastoral-romances quietly organising their chivalric armour and assembling their fairy tale plot elements, ready to do battle, and suddenly a wall exploded, debris flew everywhere, and a blood-drenched challenger calling himself Caius Martius, corpses at his feet and weeping widows at his back, marched into the ring and demanded a place in the contest.  Pericles and Cymbeline ran for cover, and when the other plays stepped forward to tell him the shortlist was compiled a month ago and he wasn’t on it, he killed Troilus and Cressida there and then, and danced on their grave!

We’re still in shock.  Coriolanus, that play no one knows how to pronounce (the metre varies but it should be ko-ree-OH-li-niss ninety percent of the time, even if you’ve always thought it was ko-ree-oh-LAY-niss) and that we all just figured was even more boring than King John, turns out to be really exciting and interesting.  I haven’t read it since the late-’90s and the only production I’d seen of it was hardly one to cherish – my memory was of lots of ranting and political instability.  But as the only play left in the canon which I haven’t re-read in the past year-or-so (aside from Henry VIII, which I have never read in the hope that I can have one true experience of seeing a Shakespeare play in the theatre without knowing what’s going to happen), I figured I’d just read the first scene to see if it’s as boring as I remembered … and what a great time I had.

Coriolanus hails from the same era as Antony and Cleopatra and Timon of Athens as a somewhere-around-1605-1609 play.  The Plutarch heritage and the huge Roman content never allowed me to consider it as a development of the ideas in King Lear and Timon, but if I can claim on this ’blog that Measure For Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida are different versions of the same play, then I think the same applies here: Coriolanus deals with what is usually my absolute favourite sort of story, best typified in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Durrenmatt’s The Visit and the Gus van Sant film Dogville – what happens when the most popular guy/girl in town suddenly becomes the most hated guy/girl in town? what happens when you’re so blinded by flattery that you can’t see what people really think of you? what happens to a city/town when its residents embrace mob mentality?

He’s not a nice guy.  He’s arrogant and proud and at the start of the play the angry mob go from hating him to loving him when he is re-surnamed Coriolanus after his impossible one-man-against-thousands victory at Corioles, where he defeats Tullus Aufidius and the Volscians for the umpteenth time.  He doesn’t want to be made consul but gives in to the peoples’ demands and stands for election … but scheming tribunes make the crowd believe Coriolanus is mocking them, so they change their minds and, rather than beg for the title he never wanted, he tells them they don’t deserve all the victories he has won for them.  When they try to banish him, he retorts, “No, I’m banishing you!” and turns his back on Rome, joining with Aufidius and the Volscians, who are about to launch yet another attack under the logic that “the fittest time to corrupt a man’s wife is when she’s fallen out with her husband” (!).  Aufidius welcomes his greatest foe as a brother, and in an echo of Timon’s contempt and hatred for his former city, Coriolanus refuses to hear any entreaties for peace from his former allies and friends in Rome (the scene where he dismisses Menenius, the nearest thing he has to a father, with a cold simple “Away” that would make Prince Hal look like Elmo, is fantastic).  But Aufidius is easily jealous at how much regard the rest of the Volsces suddenly accord Coriolanus, and his hatred is further fuelled when, on the verge of war, Coriolanus’ resolve and hardness is completely broken by the chastisement of his mother and he weeps and seeks peace between both armies.  While Coriolanus’ wife and mother and all the people of Rome await his homecoming as the great unifier of the Romans and the Volsces, Aufidius and his conspirators murder Coriolanus.

It’s unrelenting, epic, dense and bloody and Coriolanus makes even the proudest characters in the rest of the canon look humble.  How it would fare as a small-scale touring show remains to be seen, but there’s ample scope for all sorts of cunning political analogy and you’d have to find a way of making it intimate and naturalist, because Spartacus-esque battle scene after battle scene wouldn’t be interesting.  And its crowd scenes are much more tricky and sophisticated than Julius Caesar’s – it’s not a play that I think would be necessarily fun for actors or audience, but would be of immense value nonetheless.

But what an unexpected game-changer!  We’re currently all hiding in the corner while he stands in the ring, covered in blood and refusing to budge.  As I said, he’s killed Troilus and Cressida, AND he says he’ll do the same to Timon of Athens and Antony and Cleopatra if they’ll dare to face him!!  What could possibly happen next?!

Next time: will Pericles get to face Cymbeline?  Will Coriolanus break the Timon of Athens-Antony and Cleopatra deadlock?