In thinking about the aspects of staging that mediate performance, I turn to my experience of seeing the 2018 Stratford Festival production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, directed by Robert Lepage. What stood out to me, in one scene, was how texting on a large screen conveyed dialogue to the audience, inserted humour and signaled the ways that communication takes place as much (if not more) through technology than in person in the twenty-first century. Given the plethora of technologies, both on our stages and in our lives, this paper explores, through a close examination of the use of media in this production, how the “social” aspect of social media brings us together (if it does), and what happens to our notion of community in a time of massive migrations resulting from the proliferation of social upheaval and unrest.
Keywords: community, social media, staging, civil unrest
The use of technology in making theatre is certainly nothing new. With the rapid tech advances in recent years, it’s now unusual to attend a production that doesn’t incorporate various types of projections, special lighting effects, extra-diegetic sound elements or other trendy tech aspects as part of the audience experience. Given the plethora of technologies, both on our stages and in our lives, this paper will explore, through a close examination of the use of media in Robert Lepage’s 2018 production of Coriolanus, how the “social” aspect of social media brings us together (if it does), and what happens to our notion of community in a time of massive migrations resulting from the proliferation of social upheaval and unrest. What, in other words, does staging our relationship to social media, through narratives that reflect contemporary conditions and relations, do to mark our interconnectedness in a world that feels more and more the disconnections of a trash fire?
I was initially struck by the idea of these connections/disconnections through media, and in particular social media, while attending a performance of Robert Lepage’s 2018 modern dress production of Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival. The connections between Shakespeare’s last Roman play and the sense of political betrayal and distrust in the contemporary world are exceptionally clear, and Lepage is only the latest performance practitioner to recognize and make use of this text to comment on class relations in a fraught socioeconomic landscape of deprivation.[i] At stake in the play is the very integrity of the Republic, where the Constitutional demands of “balancing rituals of trust and obligation” are dependent upon “a legislative structure vested uneasily in both the citizen assembly and the patrician senate, a dual executive of two elected consuls with reciprocal powers of veto over each other, and tribunes to make representations from the people to the senate” (Carver 177).
Within this uneasy setting of a sociopolitical landscape threatened from within by civil war and from without from one of its warring tribes, the Volscians, current interest in this play is understandable. From Trumpian theatrics in the U.S., Brexit in the U.K., the civil wars of Yemen, Syria and South Sudan, as well as the continued onslaught against public services in Ontario, to the recent election of Jason Kenney’s right-wing UCP in Alberta, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus seems like it was written for our own time and global location. What is most interesting to me in Lepage’s treatment of this play is how the use of media frames the animosity between the ruled and ruling classes, provides commentary on who should enjoy the rights and privileges of community and draws focus to these relational conflicts through its staging.
As noted in the Toronto Star review of the play, this production not only confirms “Lepage’s reputation as a cinematic theatremaker” with its focus on visuals but also has the result that “[Lepage] is critiquing the media construction of greatness” (Fricker 2018). In a play that begins in media res with the Plebeians denouncing Caius Martius (later known as Coriolanus) as “chief enemy to the people” (1.i.8), at a time when the citizens are threatened with drought-induced starvation, the work of spinning the valiant warrior Coriolanus as worthy of the position of Consul in Senate resembles nothing so much as the political campaigns of our own era, replete with television news bites in this production that reflect the mercurial mood of the community. While the titular character has been conventionally understood as an elitist patrician bridling against the demands of placating the plebeians in the political sphere of the Republic, here, “Coriolanus’ disdain for the Roman public, . . . seems more sympathetic in the context of social media pile-ons and groupthink” (Fricker 2018). It is in this realm of media representation that Lepage’s production links Shakespeare’s work most directly to our own contemporary moment.
In a production that is entirely framed through the use of media with its television screens, picture-like framing of scenes and filmic tracking shots, there is one moment that stands out in particular where two characters communicate via texting, which is projected on a darkened screen between them. They are thus, equally connected through the medium of texting and physically disconnected, as is indicated by having their backs turned from one another. In this short, humorous scene between a Roman guard and a Volscian one keeping watch at their remote posts, the characters provide exposition about the state of things in Rome, which is edging closer to the brink of civil war as a result of the continuing food shortages.
Lepage’s choice to have the guards communicate through texting, rather than speak directly, certainly resonates for audiences familiar with the constant news of civil wars in the twenty-first century, delivered through the proliferation of media. The use of texting incorporated here signals the ways in which news (both personal and official) is communicated and mediated through technologies that are sometimes trusted and, more often in the contemporary world, seen as suspiciously partisan.
Thus, Lepage’s visual framing of the play reminds us that we are in a new realm of mediated communication that reflects the world outside the theatre, in which the technologies through which we communicate are altering how we receive news and understand the world. In a play that stages a culture grappling with the emergence of democracy through attempting to establish a new republican system of governance, issues of trust are foregrounded, much as they are in the current climate of spin doctoring and “fake news.” The struggle to balance the relations between the ruling class and those being ruled, as evident in the play, resonates for audiences living a similar situation in 2018, where the tensions between voters and those seeking office is amplified in the social strata of Facebook and Twitter.
In the information age, news (whether it is true or not) circulates at an incredible rate, and serves to inform the public, which in Lepage’s production foregrounds the clash between the rulers and the ruled. As Lepage notes in an interview posted to the Stratford Festival webpage, “nowadays, public opinion is mostly represented not by tribunes and mass assemblies, but by mass media and social media.”
So, Lepage’s staging with its focus on multimedia forms (television news, texting, etc.) speaks to the world of the audience as much as the dialogue speaks to the issue of what is trustworthy in the political arena within the world of the play. In both instances, no longer are we in the golden age of broadcasting where the news of the day is delivered by a source the viewer can trust, as in the days of Cronkite, Brokaw, and Lloyd Robertson (voted “Most Trusted News Anchor”).
Now, and for the characters in Coriolanus,the very media that informs cannot always be trusted to present an accurate picture of the world and its leadership, to the point where we’ve ended up in the realm of “fake news” and its deep-seated issues of trust, loyalty and betrayal. In such a fraught and suspicious political landscape, how then do we make community in a democratic sense? Is good government simply, as Lepage suggests in his interview with the Stratford Festival just a matter of choosing the right leader? And even if this is so, how do we know whether or not she or he is, in fact, the right leader? And what, for that matter, are the features of that so-called right leader? So, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, Lepage’s Coriolanus is as much about the ways in which media influences our collective sense of community in response to the world as it is a play that uses media to stage a narrative of trust, betrayal and exile against a backdrop of the erosion of public trust.
This foregrounding of media, along with being a trademark of Lepage’s work, also reinforces Chatzrichristodoulou’s observation that “digital technology is a product of digital culture” (314). Certainly, at this point in time, it should be obvious to even the most rigid Luddite that we are deeply immersed in digital culture, so much so that, as Peter Kuling and Laura Levin note in their introduction to the 2014 edition of Canadian Theatre Review that focused on Digital Performance, the technological innovations we experience “expose our relation to temporality, to global capital, and to twenty-first century values” (6). The implication here is that the rapid changes in technologies underscore and perhaps unsettle the very values that mark the twenty-first century. Further, it is the very unsettledness of the digital culture itself that Lepage’s production of Coriolanus invites us to consider. Ultimately, in Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus is exiled and dies brutally at the hands of the Volscian soldiers, not belonging to either Roman or Volscian place/culture, having been defined as a traitor by both.
While Coriolanus himself is accused of betrayal to both his Roman heritage and the Volscians, with whom he allies himself after his banishment from Rome, he is equally betrayed by them and left with no place of belonging, either literally or ideologically. Perhaps unlike migrants and refugees in our own time, Coriolanus finds himself in exile not so much in a quest for a better life or better opportunities but as a means of seeking vengeance for his expulsion from Rome. Very much like the man-child he is, he says to his mother, when she comes to beg him to broker peace rather than lead the Volscian forces in war against Rome, “I shall be loved when I am lacked” (IV.i.18). While this may give us some insight into this character’s emotional maturity (and thus his inability to be the right leader), the ultimate result is that he is left with no place of belonging, much like those choosing migration over certain calamity in our own global context. In his attempt to forge community, Coriolanus lacks the understanding of both the Roman culture he leaves and the Volscian culture to which he gravitates. This failure to understand what it is that creates and binds community is the ultimate tragedy for this character.
In his seminal treatise The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy notes that “community is that singular ontological order in which the other and the same are alike (sont le semblable): that is to say in the sharing of identity” (34). Further, in his consideration of what constitutes community in the first place, Nancy suggests that “community is given to us—or we are given or abandoned to the community: a gift to be renewed and communicated, it is not a work to be done or produced” (35). If Coriolanus is a play about the difficulties of sustaining a Republican community (how apt for our times) that insists that “civil discourse is the freedom to hear and be heard. . . . It is the heart of democracy” (Raspa 217), then its central character also stands as a warning against the failure to recognize that community is not a product but a process marked by constant change, and as such is necessary to the continuation of the republic. Coriolanus’ insistence on the hierarchical binary of elitist versus populist governance, which divides the community and hampers the democratic possibilities of the republic, results in his own expulsion from community to a liminal space of non-being. Arguably, it is his unwillingness to consider any perspective not aligned with his own position as a patrician that makes of him such a tragic character.
In his unrelenting valorization of the virtue of courage, which he has ably demonstrated, Coriolanus completely neglects the other three complementary classical virtues noted by Raspa, “prudence, temperance, and justice” (222). Without these virtues, Shakespeare seems to suggest one cannot be a good leader, one that understands the necessity for compromise and collaboration through a balance of the four virtues. As perhaps Shakespeare’s most political play, we might agree with Raspa, who suggests that, taken together, the Roman plays “mirror Elizabethan times, for the plays deal with leadership and crucial transmissions of power in the state” (Raspa 215).
By the time Shakespeare pens this final instalment of those plays (1608), James I has risen to power, following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, and has been the target of the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. Despite the instabilities at the onset of the Jacobean period, one thing that is historically certain is that “with the fall of the monarchy, the Roman Republic rises” (214), a fact of which Shakespeare and his audience would have been well aware. Unlike Coriolanus, who ends his life in exile, having alienated both communities to which he has ties, James I managed to rule the English (and Irish and Scottish) for 22 years until his own death in 1625, perhaps because he understood the necessity of utilizing all four of the classical virtues in equal measure. Thus, the play might also be understood as a reminder of the mercurial instabilities of Republican governance that demand co-operation with the citizenry, here represented by those Machiavellian tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus. It is specifically through these two figures, who, in their scheming to reinforce their own position and power, manipulate the plebeians for their own ends and exemplify the disconnection between representatives and constituents, that so marks the cynicism of our own political times.
While stories of political manipulation are nothing new to theatre, or life for that matter, the way in which these tribunes manoeuver the people to raise their voices against Coriolanus for the position of Consul speaks to the problem of mob rule raised in the play. So, while Coriolanus is a clear candidate for the position, given his service to the state as a military leader, Sicinius and Brutus are well aware of his disdain for the commoners, who he variously describes as “dissentious rogues . . . [and] curs” (I.i.175–179), and they use this knowledge to sway the people to deny him as Consul. In short order, the people go from agreeing to give Coriolanus their support to demanding his banishment (3.iii.135), after the tribunes convince them to do so. What Coriolanus in his disdain for the commoners points out is that the mob cannot be trusted precisely because they can be so easily lead.
Lepage himself expresses a similar view when he notes, “A well-balanced society relies on freedom of expression, but also on putting political decisions in the hands of specialists, people who are educated” (Interview). It’s not enough, however, that the leaders are educated, as our own moment demonstrates, but it requires putting faith in leaders who will make decisions based on principle rather than on majority opinion (Interview). And certainly social media is a forum replete with opinion, often unsupported, as Lepage notes when he says, “although you can encounter some very interesting opinion on social media, much of the time the opinions expressed are ill informed” (Interview).
As public discourse has largely moved from the physical meeting place of the Forum to the disembodied, and often anonymous, platforms of social media, civil debate appears to be on the wane while slander, misinformation and outright lies seem to proliferate. Perhaps Lepage is right when he says, “the shape and form [freedom of expression] has now taken makes Coriolanus sound prophetic” (Interview). While that may sound like a dire warning, perhaps it’s one we need to heed as our lives become more mediated through the platforms on which we engage with our communities and others in the world.
Thus, if we follow Lepage’s example, consciously using media in the theatre to critique our very relationships to those media, we may discover that the theatrical event in which we participate as a form of community becomes a forum in which to actually consider the ramifications of our political ideals, alliances and social values in the twenty-first century. Perhaps, then, the possibility and hope of connection that social media has held out can come closer to being realized, and the trash fire in which actual humans struggle to survive and thrive, although it may not be extinguished, might at least not continue to be so inflamed.
[i]Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film version of the play and Tom Hiddleston’s 2013 portrayal of the title character in the Donmar Warehouse production are two of the more recent examples of interest in this text.
Carver, Terrell. “Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (1608) and Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852): The Constitutional Is the Personal.” Shakespeare, vol. 14, no. 2, Routledge, Apr. 2018, pp. 174–80, doi:10.1080/17450918.2018.1455738.
Chatzichristodoulou, Maria. “Introduction to Encountering the Digital in Performance: Deployment | Engagement | Trace.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 27, no. 3, Routledge, July 2017, pp. 311–23, doi:10.1080/10486801.2017.1343248.
Fricker, Karen. “Shakespeare’s Coriolanus Brought to the Present at Stratford.” The Star, 24 June 2018.
Lepage, Robert. “Director Robert Lepage in Conversation with Literary and Editorial Director David Prosser.” Stratford Festival.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Inoperative Community. U of Minnesota P, 1991.
Raspa, Richard. “Place in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: The Intersection of Geography, Culture, and Identity.” Mediterranean Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, 2018, pp. 213–28, muse.jhu.edu/article/710863.
Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library. 2009.
Cleveland, PhD, is the Co-ordinator of Drama Studies housed in the
Department of English at Carleton University. She teaches performance theory,
play analysis and theatre semiotics. She is active in the Ottawa theatre
community, sitting on the board of Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theatre
Company, and the Prix Rideau Awards. As well, Janne has been a jury member with
the Ottawa Fringe Festival and the Rideau Awards. Her research examines the
political landscapes of contemporary performance in Canada.