Paul Foot

At last

Crows peck the eagles

(27 June 1992)

From Socialist Worker, 27 June 1992.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000, pp. 39–40.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

For 30 years I have been searching for a performance of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus which understands what the play is about – and now I have found it.

The Renaissance Company’s production with Kenneth Branagh as the tyrant and Judi Dench as his mother Volumnia has got it right at last.

The simple point which was missed in every single one of the 12 productions I have seen plus one I acted in – as the second senator, who had one and a half lines – is that the play is about the class war.

The scene is set in the Roman Republic, where the patricians and their senate concede to the people a couple of their own kind to act as ‘tribunes’. But no one in the English audience of 1608 could have missed the parallel, as an arrogant and ambitious king, James I, started to challenge the growing influence of the merchants and, beneath them, the angry cry of the common people.

William Shakespeare was not a revolutionary. His instincts and sympathies were with the patricians, and even with the king, though almost all his history plays about English kings show how rotten the kings were. To that extent, Nigel Lawson’s classically imbecilic comment that Shakespeare was a Tory’ had some truth in it.

But Shakespeare was not just a ‘Tory’. His greatness came not just from his command of the English language, unrivalled before or since, but from his ability to listen to how and why the language was used to express people’s fears and hopes, doubts and certainties.

‘The people’ might well be a rabble, fickle in their choice of favourites and easily moulded by a skilful orator. But they had a point. The arrogant kings who ignored them might be high and mighty, even honest and admirable characters. But if they ignored their subjects they were tyrants.

Coriolanus is a patrician who believes so passionately in the right of his class to rule over the masses that he refuses to compromise. He would rather drag his class into open civil war with the ‘rabble’ than address a kind word to them. His pride, his valour in war, his glorious use of language are all so dominant that director after director has fallen into the trap of reducing all the other characters in the play to foils to the Great Man.

Coriolanus becomes just another personal tragedy, a tragedy of a great man done down by the stinking mob. The excitement of the play, the ebb and flow of the class struggle, is entirely missed. In this awful directional censorship the victims have been the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus.

Now at last the balance is struck right. Kenneth Branagh is a wonderful Coriolanus, but the reason he is the best yet – better by far, for instance, than Laurence Olivier – is that he and the director, Tim Supple, understand and, I suspect, sympathise with what the crowd represent.

The crowd, many of whom have been picked from the Sussex unemployed, are magnificent. As the initiative shifts from the oppressed to the oppressors and back again, the excitement never stops.

The scene in which the tribunes, Jimmy Yuill and Gerard Horan, gently but forcefully persuade the people to resist the dictator, a scene traditionally ignored or gutted by patrician directors, is one of the most exhilarating pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

I hope this production will soon move from the unlikely surroundings of Chichester so that all socialists can go to see it and enjoy it.

Last updated on 30 June 2014