Patricia Keeney*

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Lepage. Featuring Andre Sills, Graham Abbey, Tom McCamus, Stephen Ouimette, Lucy Peacock and Tom Rooney. The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Directed by Antoni Cimolino. Starring Martha Henry. Design: Brette Gerecke. At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada, June to October 2018.

These two unusual interpretations of Shakespeare warrant particular attention, underscoring the basic human types of warrior and mother. Coriolanus, staged by Quebec’s Robert Lepage, is the more problematic and the more innovatively conceived, rewarding full critical treatment. A quick look at Shakespeare’s The Tempest shows how a major change to tradition may reveal new possibility but also put a classic awkwardly at odds with itself.

The distinctive film and multi-media signature of Robert Lepage—Canada’s most internationally-recognized director—is written all over Coriolanus. His deft and often powerful production of one of Shakespeare’s most puzzling, most purely political and possibly least popular tragedies speaks to our times.

In the Roman Forum, Coriolanus (André Sills) is sentenced to exile by consuls Junius Brutus (Stephen Ouimette) and Sicinius (Tom Rooney) representing the people, seen imaged around him, and helplessly witnessed by Menenius, beleaguered friend of Coriolanus (Tom McCamus). Everyone is media-magnified as in any contemporary political rally, reinforcing both treachery and entrapment. Photo: David Hou

From the dark yawn of an empty stage, the carved classical head of imperial Rome booms out authoritative tones. Rising brightly from one corner like an old time movie scene, Tom McCamus animates his sardonically honed Menenius, bantering through a radio interview as he attempts to mollify crowds who clamor for grain. Fade-out to splintered glass clattering down, shiny and dangerous, chillingly filmed to replicate the killing clang of battle. Movie credits and contemporary black and white riot footage follow.

Lepage’s theatrical ingenuity brings us immediately to the place where we now live, a post-truth, fake news world, as perilous as it is ludicrous. The play’s central problem is that its hero is a warrior—and only a warrior—arguably the most one-dimensional protagonist ever created by Shakespeare, as unlikely as a (US) Presidency pre-occupied by corporate double think.

With satiric accuracy, Lepage highlights the dangerous liaison between backroom politics and frontline heroics. His claustrophobic utilitarian government offices, contrast with scenes of tribal leaders conferring in a steam bath full of classical statuary. Volscian warriors camp in hillside caves looking like Afghan terrorist cells. Lepage’s easy blending of periods locates us simultaneously here and there, then and now. Insidiously, casual images slide by as blithely as our views of the White House today, with its neo-classical reminders of imperial power, both menacingly dormant and randomly activated.

Coriolanus traps us between the extremes of political manipulation and violent confrontation, a dilemma we instantly recognize. There is no middle ground, no compromise. The real protagonist, however, is the fickleness of “the people,” massaged by political rhetoric into destroying the democracy they claim to embrace.

My first reading of the play came decades ago, soon after my first contact with Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a work that deeply expresses the concept of “herd mentality,” how people in a crowd can adopt a group instinct that overrides all individual thinking. It spoke to me then and even more painfully now.

Coriolanus (André Sills) berated by his ferocious mother Volumnia (Lucy Peacock) for not playing politician. In an accusation indicating the complexity of her hold on him, she rails, “Your strength is mine, your pride and stubbornness your own.”
Photo: David Hou

Coriolanus has defeated Rome’s enemy and returns triumphant to his city where everyone (including his ferociously ambitious mother, Volumnia) insists he become a Roman consul. In order to secure this position, he is told he must play to the crowd, display his wounds so that the transition from warrior to politician can be successfully stage-managed.

The politics of image was clearly alive long before our own age. Lepage’s media-infused production acknowledges the timeless power of purely visual spectacle. But Coriolanus cannot or will not play that part. If he had any genuine interiority as a character, he might try to convert his fighting spirit into a new challenge. But all he knows is the force of battle. When not actually fighting, he can only polish his armor.

Red runway lights and the shudder of a plane bring Coriolanus home, fulminating against Rome. If the people want grain, he insists, they must first work for the city’s safety. In the pubs, tribunes—wavering warily in the political wind—note their hero’s discomfort with the trappings of honor.

At an awards banquet, Coriolanus seeks vengeance against, rather than conciliation with the crowd. He must always fight an enemy. Frantically whispering behind live microphones, his own meddling organizers characterize him as “a thing of blood.”

Agreeing to play the political role, Coriolanus goes civilian. He walks down a leafy street, meeting the common folk door-to-door to, an activity as ill-fitting to this warrior as the suit he wears. Back at campaign headquarters, hysteria breaks out while angry crowds rush against the windows. News cameras (deadlier to him than guns) take aim.The consensus: “his nature is too noble for this world.”

Actor André Sills invests Coriolanus less with nobility than unvaried noisy emotion. Sills goes hot with his Coriolanus, compared say, to Ralph Fiennes’ cold steel in the film version (2011). Fiennes’ icy reading more effectively freezes us out of sympathy for the uncompromising warrior. Sills’ unrelenting fire just makes us uncomfortable and impatient with the character. Shakespeare has written Coriolanus so severely that any number of interpretations may be possible. Yet, the less we are shown (as in Fiennes’ version) the more we may interestingly imagine lurking behind this fierce façade of a man.

Back at the forum, forces gather. Cries of “traitor” fill the air while a tribune elaborately cleans his spectacles. On screen, the accusers of Coriolanus keep turning—full face, then away—in a familiar flip-flop image of official duplicity, before pronouncing sentence on him.

Coriolanus drives into exile through city lights onto super highway. After a rain- soaked forest night, he finds himself in enemy territory, a hint of urban jungle plastered with lurid graffiti.

Kiss or kill! Coriolanus (André Sills, left) turning himself over to the enemy general, Aufidius (Graham Abbey), in a knife edge moment between love and death. Photo: David Hou

He will surrender. “Use my misery for your ends,” he says bitterly to the Volscian general, Aufidius, who instead of slitting his enemy’s throat, cradles his head like a lover, whereupon these two new best friends indulge in the homoerotic tussling natural to their warrior status.

In Rome, rumours fly. Coriolanus has defected, “become their god.” Terror mounts in pubs where tribunes watch news feeds of dreaded Volscison the march, led by their once Roman hero. In a Lepage coup de théâtre, two guards text each other giddily with emojis, indicating the political hysteria that controls public opinion through social media and practices democracy in tweets.

Relenting, Coriolanus returns to the Volscians with a peace treaty. Aufidius unceremoniously kills him. And instantly experiences remorse. Holding the dead hand of Coriolanus, he admits to being “struck with sorrow.” A warrior mourning his own kind, Aufidius demands full honors for his slain brother-in-arms, celebrating the fanatical code by which they both live and die.

Lepage’s Coriolanus reminds us that it is not just the system but the leader that matters. As lethal as Coriolanus is, he does not deceive. What you see is what you get—political life diminished to the brute honesty of might and unscrupulous crowd control.

***

Equally unorthodox, the Festival’s Tempest features veteran star, Martha Henry, as a somewhat motherly Prospero.

Martha Henry as Prospero scolding Caliban (Michael Blake) in her unique interpretation of the role as both wizard and mentoring matriarch. Photo: David Hou

Spectacle starts the play. This wizard woman unleashes a kaleidoscope of image and sound, rattling the world she rules. Sonically, imagistically, her power alternately fizzes and sparks. Yet, the source of this Prospero is stern stillness. She droops over sorcery books, peering down from her cliff top aerie like an ominous seabird. Then, smoothly orchestrating the elements to fury, she crashes sails and shipwrecks enemies upon her enchanted shores.

After initial fireworks, Prospero mellows, merging sorcery with less dramatic maternal notes. Slight and grey, she becomes the calm eye of the raging storm she began. Once the Duchess of Milan, she is now homely, fussing and tut-tutting, as her words tumble out, distracted by what they must accomplish in so little time. Stooped but determined, she calls Caliban to account, alternately lectures and calms daughter Miranda, debates gamely with Ariel, her recalcitrant spirit of air.

As Prospero’s plans are realized, the play’s lavish visuals kick in again. Flowing rainbow robes and twangling lights celebrate nuptials, reconciliation and freedom, while a great bird with red eyes and gleaming talons high on a cliff resurrects the goddess in Granny. Indisputably, Martha Henry gives a performance commensurate with her age and talent, both of which are great. But, by attempting to accommodate the occult within a comfortable common sense, this thoughtful take on Shakespeare’s classic meta-play does not entirely work.


 

*Patricia Keeney is an award-winning Canadian theatre and literary critic, as well as a widely-published poet and novelist. Her most recent books are the novel, One Man Dancing, based on the history of Uganda’s legendary Abafumi theatre company and a collection of poetry and contemporary dialogues called Orpheus in Our World, based on the earliestof Greek hymns. Keeney teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Toronto’s York University.

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Of Mothers and Warriors
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