Oh baby. Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival was a lot.
Firstly, I should start off by saying the recent Lepage controversy weighs on my mind as I start writing this. The fact of the matter is that I loved this show. And how do you separate art from the creator? This is a pretty prevalent conversation in today’s media and I really don’t have an answer. There’s really no excuse for outdated behaviour and you will get called on it. I just hope people learn that and it shapes future artistic leaders to do better. So here I am with this show that I loved and I’m going to talk about how great it is. But I still don’t know how I feel about that either. Here we go though.
The show opens on a bust of Coriolanus. It looms largely in the middle of the stage and you don’t pay too much attention to it until the lights go down. The bust comes alive (via a projection of Andre Sills) and addresses the audience. Within the first five seconds, I knew I was in for a treat with this show. Lepage can create theatrical magic with images.
The stage has several parts to it including a couple of projection screens allowing for the sets to move quickly from one setting to another. Your view is controlled by what looks like a giant shutter that guides your perspective to one spot on the stage (for example: to focus on one characters reaction) or to cut the stage into different spaces (for example: limiting the space to just a small rectangle when creating a bar that drops down from the ceiling). There are also small boxes which move horizontally across the stage such as when two separate offices slide across the stage from left to right as men in the two rooms have different discussions. The actual acting space is slightly elevated from the Avon’s floor which creates another acting zone downstage.
This production was a political thriller. If felt like I was watching an episode of the West Wing or House of Cards. Scenes move seamlessly into one another and the entire cast work together like clockwork. The only disadvantage of this cinematic staging was the action rushed by so quickly that it was easy to feel disconnected from the acting. Everything just zipped by.
The opening monologue transitions into a radio talk show with Menenius Agrippa (Tom McCamus) on the air. It was very cute. They are discussing the riots happening when suddenly the glass behind the men shatters and they duck for cover. This was, of course, just a projection behind them, but it was so cool. And then – I’m so excited even reliving this moment – the screen in front of them transitions into a title sequence. The title “Coriolanus” appears with shattered glass falling on the black background. The rest of the credits continue before diving back into the rest of the plot. I probably could have left after the first ten minutes and felt like I got my money’s worth. I just about pooped my pants.
Another wow moment for me was the war sequences and how they were accomplished. I mentioned earlier the playing space downstage which played a key part in these sequences. We see a small boy come onstage with his wagon and begin setting up army soldiers and a cut-out of a building. He returns later with a toy army tank with a small camera attached to the front of it. The viewpoint of the small tank is then projected for the audience to see and we get to watch as Caius Marcius (later afforded the title Coriolanus) fights through a variety of other toy soldiers.
We watch this until he knocks down the carboard building and – boom – it’s Graham Abbey! Artistic Director of Festival Players! Ahhh! (I have no affiliation with Festival Player’s but I love Prince Edward County so here we are lol). Abbey plays Tullus Aufidius aka the enemy of Coriolanus and General for the Volscian army. The scene blacks out and we hear later that Tullus was defeated but he escaped. It was a simple device but it was a great way to take us through the war.
The play moves into the “Coriolanus is unlikable” part of the play. Shakespeare doesn’t do him any favours because the character never takes a moment to tell us what is going on in his head. All we get is that Coriolanus dislikes common people and he is not good at schmoozing because he has a temper. I also haven’t taken the time to read Coriolanus (bad me) so I also must rely on the information I am receiving from this production. The aggression of Coriolanus is balanced out by Andre Sills who addresses the anger as tied to post-traumatic stress disorder. I thought Sills did an amazing job with a tricky character. It’s hard to figure him out. His motivations and emotions are erratic. But if there is one thing that is clear – Coriolanus loves his mom. Lucy Peacock is fabulous as the overbearing mother pushing her son towards greatness. This plan for greatness just backfires when the people realize Coriolanus is sort-of awful to them.
Okay okay! Get ready for another moment to rave about. The Trial of Coriolanus. The court room drama scene was soooo good. Tom Rooney (Sicinius Velutus) was at his finest in this scene playing one of the two tribunes with Stephen Ouimette as his co-tribune. The two men bent on getting Coriolanus out of their political arena. The scene felt like watching the house of commons on television. The audience gets to view of all the cameras pointed in different directions from the Roman audience to the speakers of the house. The whole thing dissolves from the etiquette of politics into a farce as Coriolanus is banished, flips a table vowing revenge, and then returns to the politicians congratulating themselves on a job well done. The bottom half of our view where we could see the action live closes and we are left to watch the television screens with politicians chatting casually. BOOM. INTERMISSION.
How could there be more? I’ve already gone through so much as an audience member!
But the play persists with Coriolanus taking off in his car to arrive in Antium (the Volscian capital) to go and find his enemy Tullus. Now here is probably a good point to talk about Tullus and his sexuality. It’s made very clear at the beginning of the play that Tullus is gay and is having a relationship of sorts with one of the younger soldiers. After Tullus is injured by Coriolanus at the beginning of the play, the younger soldier tries to intimately comfort Tullus who swipes him away. They continue to have little private moments throughout the play.
But it’s clear when Coriolanus arrives to ask Tullus to partner up in destroying Rome that Tullus is feeling some sort of way about Coriolanus. They have a little play fight that ends with Tullus embracing Coriolanus while they breathe heavily. Tullus’s interest in Coriolanus is what guides his actions throughout the second half of the play and why he feels so betrayed when Coriolanus chooses to not destroy Rome with him.
I’ve already spoiled it but Coriolanus, on the urging of his mother, chooses to not destroy Rome. And as I’ve said before, Coriolanus loves his mumsy so he does it for her. Tullus is not happy though. The Volscians arrive to Tullus’s hotel room and they seem quite pleased with achieving peace with Rome. Tullus not only feels personally betrayed by Coriolanus but feels like his people gave up their moment of power over Rome. Coriolanus arrives feeling pleased with himself and his decision (which we don’t even get to see take place onstage – thanks a lot Shakespeare!). Tullus argues with Coriolanus and they begin to fight with each other. They fight on top of Tullus’s bed and then Tullus shoots Coriolanus in the head whose body flops over Tullus.
The play ends with Tullus moving to the chair beside the bed where Coriolanus lays dead and he begins to weep for the man. Lepage changed the ending in which Coriolanus is normally mauled to death by the Volscians who he has betrayed to a much more intimate argument between two men. It felt like the end to a television episode and wrapped up nicely. Getting mauled to death by a swarm of people doesn’t wrap up quite as well.
This is probably going to be one of the best Shakespeare plays I’ll ever see. At the very least, I’ll never get to see another show like this one again. It was special and I’m lucky to have seen it.