“Agrippa Grabs Brutus’ Crotch”: the bizarre Shakespearean screenwriting of Steve Bannon

From Coriolanus in L.A. to Titus Andronicus in space, there’s little here to celebrate.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Aufidius says nothing. He checks the gun barrel, then picks up a rod and begins cleaning it. As he talks, the gun transforms: it’s deadly, it’s sexual...”

A marketing strategy shift from the NRA? The opening paragraph of Fifty Shades 4.0: A Shade Harder? No. This eyebrow-raising extract is action from The Thing I Am, an L.A. Riot-set hip-hop retelling of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, co-written for the screen by ex-White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. 

Last year, George Clooney memorably characterised Bannon as a “failed fucking screenwriter”. This is not entirely true. Clooney would certainly win if the two were to hold a ruler to their respective IMDB pages, but that’s not to say Bannon is a complete Hollywood outsider.

Given Donald Trump’s extensive, if not impressive, showreel of cameos – ranging from genial in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, to all-too-familiar leering in an episode of ABC’s The Job – it is perhaps unsurprising that one of his closest confidants has also dabbled in the world of motion pictures.

Bannon has quite the CV, moving from an executive producer credit for 1991 Sean Penn flick The Indian Runner, to taking the director’s chair for Ronald Reagan biopic and personal passion project, In The Face of Evil. His output is mostly confined to the bracket of straight-to-DVD conservative fluff (Clinton Cash, Battle For America, and similarly cheery titles), but it’s in his back-catalogue of unproduced scripts that the really wacky gems can be unearthed.

You can see why Bannon would be attracted to Coriolanus. It’s a large-scope tale of inter-city conflict in ancient Italy, centred on Caius Martius Coriolanus, a brilliant general who defects from Rome and brings his former home under siege. Where Macbeth’s fatal flaw is ambition, and Hamlet’s is indecision, Coriolanus offers a close study of its title character’s all-consuming pride. There’s also a questioning of democracy, an exploration of honour in warfare, and more than a hint of incest – but it is Shakespeare’s presentation of a single man raging against an unfriendly world that one suspects Bannon found resonant.

There’s certainly a precedent for updating Coriolanus. In 2012, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in his own relatively by-the-book modern retelling – complete with assault rifles and limousines – and somewhat presciently warned of the damage a proud strongman can do. On stage, the tragic hero has been played variously by Tom Hiddleston, Laurence Olivier, and Charles Dance – often to critical and commercial acclaim. A successful Coriolanus seems to merely require a respect for the text thoroughly absent from Bannon’s tone-deaf misfire.

The Thing I Am, co-authored by Bannon and his long-time screenwriting partner Julia Jones, casts Coriolanus as Blood gang leader Marcius, following him through a turbulent night during the 1992 LA riots. The action is transposed from the inter-city conflicts of Italy to gang turf wars in south central Los Angeles, with Shakespeare’s “lamb indeed, that baes like a bear” dragged into the 20th Century as a “lamb that barks like a pitbull”.

The result is a bizarre bastard mix of lofty Elizabethan English and Nineties street slang, with the title character ranting that his fellow gang members “call him noble that was once your enemy, then diss your king.”

Central to any performance of Coriolanus is the role of his mother, Volumnia. She is an overbearing matriarch, who eclipses her son’s wife and ultimately brings about his downfall. A challenging, regal character, Volumnia is characterised by Bannon/Jones as “‘Madam X’ of South Central. Abandon hope all ye who fuck with her.” Not quite how Will would have put it.

Last year, NowThis staged a table read of the script, during which one actress paused to apologise: “sorry, this is the first time I’ve ever said things like this.” The script can’t hide its providence – it’s the offspring of an ex-Goldman Sachs trader who has likely never met a Crip or a Blood in his life. It is an attempt at down-to-earth Shakespeare that misses both marks wildly.

This is further compounded by the writing’s preoccupation with excesses of machismo (perhaps not surprising from a man whose computer password is reportedly “Sparta”), as characters square off in bizarre homoerotic shows of dominance. Sure, Coriolanus isn’t a play light on phallic symbolism – characters meet “sword to sword” and there’s plenty of thrusting – but Jones/Bannon’s direction that “Agrippa crosses to Brutus and grabs his crotch” (followed immediately by “Agrippa grabs Brutus’ crotch a second time”, just in case you’d blinked and missed it) leaves precisely nothing to the imagination.

The choice of African-American characters is possibly surprising, given that Bannon has long faced accusations of White Nationalist leanings. There’s no overt malice in The Way I Am’s portrayal of black communities, and co-author Jones, a self-confessed liberal, has firmly defended Bannon as “not a racist”. However, the shallow script is unwilling to actually engage with the issues behind the ’92 riots, betraying an overriding sense of comprehensive ignorance – the potential damage of which is not to be underestimated. The occasional nod to “peeps” and token mentions of neighbourhoods at the heart of violence do little to elevate The Thing I Am’s engagement with social issues and race politics beyond the level of casual disinterest.

***

Regrettably, The Thing I Am is not Bannon's only swing at Shakespeare. He is credited as a co-executive producer for the 1999 Antony Hopkins flick Titus, a fairly straight adaptation of Titus Andronicus, generally acknowledged to be the bard’s bloodiest and worst play. It was a box-office bomb, but didn’t do badly among the critics – largely because Bannon’s original script idea was not used.

The first iteration of the Titus script, called just Andronicus and again co-authored by Jones and Bannon, takes the always-concerning step of setting itself in outer space, where “alien ships sweep out of dark, sunless skies as people flee in panic”. The original play’s scenes of betrayal and revenge play out on a grand cosmic scale, with the occasional non-canonical “erotic scene of ectoplasmic sex” thrown in to keep things interesting.

Instead of shoehorning in street slang, Andronicus instead leans heavily on ham philosophy to bulk out Shakespeare’s text – “Earth is a world of feeling, not of form”, muses the title character as he flies across a sweeping planetscape. Just as The Way I Am is patronising, there’s something about Andronicus that feels irretrievably conceited.

So, like a suited and masked forensics team picking over a blood-spattered kitchen, we must arrive at the question of why. What possesses a nationalist Ivy League ex-Wall Street man to plunge headlong into Shakespeare? In Coriolanus, there’s certainly something of the righteous victimhood that was long a component of Bannon’s media strategy during his tenure at Breitbart. In Titus Andronicus, there’s plenty of fuel for his establishment-crushing revenge fantasies. However, this is all quite predictable and tells us nothing we couldn’t learn from a radio interview with the man.

Instead of why, the how is more pertinent. The telling factor here isn’t in Bannon’s choice of plays, but in the haphazard and tone-deaf way he has updated them. The very fact that he sees The Way I Am and Andronicus as anything other than laughable to a modern audience is downright alarming, and shows just how out of step the former Chief Strategist is.

So, if there’s anything to be learned from Bannon’s screenwriting, it’s the extent to which he is unaware of his own disconnection. Studios thankfully vetoed Andronicus at an early stage, meaning it never came near to production. Bannon is reportedly still smarting from this snub, claiming that “If they’d done it my way, it would have been a hit”.

White House senior policy advisor, Stephen Miller, once accused Bannon of being “out of touch with reality”. After a cursory glance through his screenplays, it’s hard to disagree.

Free trial CSS