Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Coriolanus at Stratford

I knew, going into the Robert Lepage production of Coriolanus, that it would be  something different from what one usually sees at Ontario's Stratford. Just how different I couldn't have imagined and I'm not done pondering.

I'd seen The Nightingale at the COC, another of Lepage's shows and it was, as I wrote then, unlike any opera performance which I had ever witnessed. Initially, I wasn't entirely convinced. Lepage, an obvious lateral thinker, employs devices which some might think gimmicky to alter the audience's experience of theatrical works.

If this had been another of Shakespeare's plays, one of the masterpieces, I'd be figuratively jumping up and down, raving about this show. The tragedy, Coriolanus, which we saw at the Avon Theatre yesterday afternoon (July 10, 2018), is not one of those plays.

So, I'll simply say that this production is not to be missed. I have never seen, or imagined, anything remotely like it.

Without giving much away, it's a full-blown multimedia extravaganza. The point is made at the very outset with a giant bust of Coriolanus which comes alive.

What exactly is this we are looking at? Live players, live video, recorded video, projections, a mobile frame around the stage and moving sets, are mixed together in such a way that, often, you simply can't tell. And actors are miked, at least some of the time. This is a show that was designed for the Avon Theatre's proscenium stage so everything is seen from in front, like watching a movie or big screen TV, which makes it easier to confuse the audience.

I've complained in the past that re-setting historical theatrical pieces in different periods rarely does anything more than provide a different look. It doesn't boost the drama. In this case the contemporary setting of a play which is supposed to have taken place in the 4th century B.C.E. is essential because the theatrical devices Lepage uses are so obviously contemporary. If your characters are texting, or watching an all-news channel in a bar, it'd better be set in the here-and-now.

As for the plot, Caius Martius, a Roman patrician and war hero, is named Coriolanus after winning an important battle against the Volscians. His tragic flaw is pride. He is uncompromising and views the lower class plebeians with disdain. After seeking the office of Consul at the urging of his noble friends and his mother, he manages to insult and attack everyone and is banished from Rome by the newly created elected plebeian Tribunes. In revenge, he allies himself with a former enemy, the Volscian Aufidius, attacks Rome, but in victory, makes peace and then is assassinated by Aufidius's lieutenant as a traitor.

There were several very strong appearances by veteran actors. Lucy Peacock, as Coriolanus's mother Volumnia, nearly steals the show with an over-the-top performance. She delivers the Shakesperian text with a  dominating mother's timeless power. Graham Abbey, as Aufidius, is seriously convincing in his scenes, using his voice virtuosically. Tom McCamus is sensationally entertaining as Menenius, Coriolanus's friend and Master-of-Ceremonies, always hitting exactly the right note of casual power and lightness. Stephen Ouimet and Tom Rooney are wonderfully political, and sometimes humourous, as the newly appointed plebeian Tribunes.

André Sills gives a one-note performance in the title role. He rants and insults the plebeians (as he must since it's in the text), seeming angry throughout much of the show but never as haughty or contemptuous as he should be. It probably wouldn't be as noticeable if so much of the rest of the cast hadn't given more varied portrayals. This could be due to the author's portrayal of the character in the script.  And any of what goes on on-stage could be the result of direction, not the actor's choices.

Yesterday's performance was sold out. This is a show which might well be extended beyond its current run but one never knows. It is truly a unique vision from Lepage's Ex Machina production company.

Get thee to Stratford! Purchaseth thou thine tickets. Taketh it from me.

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