Stratford Festival 2018: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare, directed by Robert Lepage, Avon Theatre, June 9 to Oct. 20. Tickets available at (1-800-567-1600) or www.stratfordfestival.ca
It has taken master director/designer Robert Lepage a long time to get to the Stratford Festival, but it has been worth the wait. His production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is an unforgettable feast for the eyes.
The play is one of Shakespeare’s late tragedies, so the plot is taut and direct without the meanderings of earlier works. In fact, Lepage has even tightened the script further by eliminating characters and dialogue. In terms of canon, Coriolanus is part of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, along with Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus. (Some scholars even include Antony and Cleopatra in this list.)
The story revolves around the real-life Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus who is brilliant on the battlefield but hopeless in the political arena. (As proof of his leadership in war, his agnomen or nickname “Coriolanus” is awarded to him after he subdues the Volscian city of Corioli). In the play, Coriolanus has to fight on three fronts. First, there is the enemy tribe, the Volscians. Next, there are the tribunes of the people in his own city of Rome who consider him an arrogant snob. Finally, there is his Freudian/Oedipal relationship with his overbearing ambitious mother Volumnia. At this juncture of Roman history, the Tarquin kings have been overthrown, and the fledgling republic is coming to grips with how democracy works. The intriguing subtext of Coriolanus is the question of just what is good governance.
Those familiar with Lepage’s work know he is a detail man, and the glory of Coriolanus is his ingenious set design. Elizabethan theatre had no real sets. Shakespeare’s script merely names the location such as “Rome. A Street.” Lepage, however, has filled in the blanks with exquisite reality, thus giving Coriolanus a rich context.
For example, the opening scene of the play is there to provide the audience with important background information. There has been a famine and the plebeians are hungry. They blame patricians like Caius Martius for not distributing grain. Rather than having a bunch of men standing and talking, Lepage has created a talk radio studio. The men sit around a table wearing earphones as we listen to them present differing views on the plebeian/patrician conflict. Rather than mere words, Lepage has anchored the dialogue in a familiar context that provides clarity to the language, and it is his clever environments throughout the play that make Coriolanus relevant to a contemporary audience.
Lepage’s real-life settings can also deepen character. Take for example, Volumnia’s encounter with the tribunes responsible for having Coriolanus banished from Rome. On a bare stage, it would be a touching scene of a despairing mother lashing out at her son’s enemies. But look what happens when Lepage sets the scene in an upscale restaurant. Volumnia is a Roman matron of the highest class. For her to step out of character in such a public place is excruciating to watch. Her daughter-in-law Virgilia and her patrician friend Menenius are acutely embarrassed, while the rest of the diners are appalled. With this very public loss of composure, Volumnia is piling on mortification after mortification, but she can’t help herself. Throughout the speech, she keeps on returning to the tribune’s table. Thus, from a touching scene, Lepage has upped the ante, and given us a picture of abject humiliation.
To really experience Lepage’s production of Coriolanus fully, audiences should immerse themselves in the unique environment he has fashioned, in particular, his breath-taking reality of detail. As scene after scene is revealed, it is like watching a movie unfold. In fact, what Lepage and his imagination have done with Coriolanus is create what I call living cinema. The settings themselves have become an important character in the play.
Speaking of character, Lepage has been able to tap into the talents of some of the festival’s finest actors. In the title role, André Sills does a good job of portraying a soul in torment. Coriolanus’ tragic flaw is his inability to compromise. He hates hollow flattery, and by the same token, refuses to curry favour himself, which marginalizes him from every quarter except the army. He’s outraged that he has to get the despised plebeians onside in order to earn their votes to become consul. Sills is a stick of dynamite ready to explode, and the growing list of frustrations his character encounters pushes him further to the edge. Lepage has placed the emotional meter of this play at the highest level, and Sills takes Coriolanus to the breaking point and beyond.
As Volumnia, the mother from hell, Lucy Peacock, has, perhaps, been given the finest role in her 31 seasons at Stratford. To say she chews up the scenery (pardon the pun) is an understatement. Her vaulting ambition has first pushed her son into war, and now she wants to push him into politics. In the face of her domineering personality, Coriolanus crumbles. Peacock literally takes command of the stage, and sucks out all the oxygen. Her performance is truly extraordinary. She starts off strong, and keeps getting stronger.
There are also well-tuned performances from Graham Abbey as the stalwart Volscian general Aufidius, Stephen Ouimette and Tom Rooney as Junius and Sicinius, the treacherous tribunes of the people, and particularly Tom McCamus as the wily patrician Menenius. All the actors ring true with realistic performances. They live naturally within Lepage’s sets and collectively bring Rome to life. It should be mentioned that Lepage has clearly worked hard on language and diction. There is not one actor who garbles his or her lines.
As a whole, this production is a marvellous fusion of set changes (Lepage), projections (Pedro Pires), sound design (Antoine Bédard) and lighting (Laurent Routhier), not to mention the technology that makes everything happen. Lepage’s rendering of Coriolanus runs deep. He has taken Shakespeare’s rather straightforward story of a gifted warrior whose arrogance leads him into grief, and fashioned a Rome that is a complicated society full of passionate people.
As a postscript, Shakespeare purists beware. Lepage has added his own twist to the ending. Coriolanus still dies, but it is how he dies that adds a further layer of interest to Lepage’s interpretation of the play.