The Streaming Experience: Stratford Festival’s Coriolanus
As I dive in day-by-day into the seemingly infinity swimming pool of streamed theatre, I can’t help but notice that the waters are deep with various degrees of warmth and comfort. The National Theatre in London is turning out stellar films of their productions that almost make you feel you are getting something that rivals the real thing. I strain to think that anything can actually best the human experience of sitting side-by-side-by-side (have to throw in a Sondheim reference) in a theatre, although what I’m luckily experiencing is coming pretty close. Generally speaking. This can definitely be said about the second Stratford Festival production, Coriolanus, that has been made available for free on their YouTube channel. The roll-out of the Stratford Festival On Film series has been scheduled around four themes that seem pertinent to this time of government response to a pandemic and hopefully this streaming will spark further thought or conversation amongst viewers. The theme is ‘Social Order’, an idea most needed to debate and discuss as we watch the world either rise to the occasion or fall apart in selfish disarray. It started with King Lear and continues with this mind blowingly beautiful production of Coriolanus and later this week with a sexy steamy Macbeth. Other themes to follow are ‘Isolation’, ‘Minds Pushed to the Edge’, and ‘Relationships’.
Coriolanus, the man and the myth, figures prominently in the idea of ‘Social Order’ and global politics, particularly with the fatal flaw of prideful arrogance. The man and soldier is a snob of the highest order, looking down his hot-tempered nose at the lower class. He believes with all his aristocratic arrogance that plebeians don’t deserve very much, especially when it comes to political power. It’s a position that should resonate well within the States as the party in power seems to value the strength of the economy and holding onto power over lives lost. In the opening moments, when Coriolanus’ majestic bust transforms into a symbolic talking head, the dicotomy of power over empathy is thrown a complicated curveball in terms of history and governance. Many could think of his refusal to pander as something refreshing and heroic, if it were not for the unlikeable aspects of his speech and personality. What is clear, is that this production, the brain child of director and designer Robert Lepage (Cirque du Soleil’s Totem), is magnificently dynamic and progressive, pushing forth creative stances both visually, intellectually, and emotionally that rise high above the rest. It’s captivating in its theatrical inventiveness, giving us a new way to see and hear this complex, somewhat daunting play. It’s a wonder of a stage show, bordering on filmatic, and then filmed for our enjoyment. A captivating double duties idea to relish in.
This Shakespearian tragedy, written somewhere between 1605 and 1608, is based on the life of the legendary Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus. It focuses its literal eye on the socio-political arena, a topic most revelevnt to our time and place, and played out within the framework of social media and the surging forth of populism around the world, unwrapped before our eyes with a clear minded focus. Lepage, alongside his production company Ex Machina, sets out to enhance and connect to the themes laid out by Shakespeare, but using formulations that are borrowed more from clever filmmaking than classic literature and traditional theatrical techniques. The multimedia wonder that topped most of Toronto’s best-of-the-year theatre lists in 2018 succeeds spectacularly, smoothly narrowing our vision on what’s important and expanding our horizons to the bigger picture. He closes the vantage points to purposeful force our eye to follow his, borrowing most extensively from film techniques to tell a story wrapped in back room politics and ferocious war rhetoric. It’s filled with tremendously vibrate visuals that take us deeper inside the emotional and the intellectual of its story, fulfilling the theatrical task with fearless confidence and ingenuity.
Presenting its themes within across-the-board cinematic foundations, the story of the titular aggressive military leader, played by the powerful André Sills (Soulpepper’s Home), is electric with intrigue and modern day parallels. A political talk show scenario radiates out in waves, in the beginning, throwing us quickly into the deep conflict with a glass shattering pop. “Who does the wolf love?” And the response is a lamb that he can devour. This is the essence of the violent war games we are being given, played out by adrenaline-addicted toy soldiers grown large. The elaborate play-pieces are set down in child-like fashion, and the transitions from one state to another fly up and float elegantly across the stage like steam on a hot sauna floor. It’s almost hard to imagine when watching the film, how it would be to watch live, but it also plays with our imagination most elegantly. The manipulations within the power structure, embodied by the fascinating Tom McCamus (CBC’s ‘Street Legal‘) as Coriolanus’s smooth-talking advisor, Menenius, and the dynamic duo, Stephen Ouimette (‘Slings and Arrows‘) and Tom Rooney (Stratford’s 2017 Twelfth Night) as the manipulative tributes Junius and Sicinius, resonate. They play out the conflict dynamically in luxury cocktail bars and fine restaurants, giving the false edge of honest civility but offering none underneath. During those problematic political times, they provide an elegant backdrops for a master class in ensemble acting. The actors, including Michael Blake (Stratford’s King Lear) as Cominius, are smart and swift in their dissimulating of information gathered, and dynamic in their shared and multi-leveled meaning.
Fanning the flames of populism among the Roman plebeians, Coriolanus is doomed to a rapid merciless downfall, and Sills finds the right edge of antagonism that reigns supreme. He’s far from likeable, giving us a menacing performance that borders on disruption and post-traumatic stress disorder. He flinches and flexes within his towering performance, but softens in the arms of his loyal wife, Virgilia, played with understated care by Alexis Gordon (Shaw Festival’s Brigadoon). But it is in his aggressive discomfort when trying to appease the people of Rome that throws him tragically down into the dirt. Filled to the rim with arrogance and obsessive pride, Sills’s Coriolanus fuels his own banishment, throwing impatient insults at the people whenever pushed to the edge. The rebuttal to his disdainful manner sends him forcibly off, driving full speed, most theatrically dynamic, into the arms of the enemy, Volscian general Aufidius, played with a strong sexual force by Graham Abbey (Stratford’s Tartuffe). Embracing the warrier with an erotic touch of love and respect, the delicate dance of adoration wraps up Coriolanus’ defection to the Volscian side in a muscular hold. Abbey finds energy and insight in his portrayal of a sensual man who is dynamically invested in his handsome lieutenant, strongly played by Johnathan Sousa (Stratford’s Othello), and then the mighty Coriolanus, sparking an engaged warrior stance within them both.
Equally strong and aggressive, Coriolanus’ manipulative, strong-willed mother, Volumnia, played with a powerful strong punch by Lucy Peacock (Broadway’s 2004 King Lear), digs into the text with relish, finding every imaginable sharp edge and dramatic emotion within her magnificent soliloquies. She pushes and prodes at all those around her, forever finding it impossible to hold her tongue, even when she pretends or insinuates that she should. She finds humor in her rage, and frightening thought in her manipulative power, decoding the way into her son’s heart as her son’s wife watches on in passive bewilderment. It’s charged and forceful, almost too big for the tightly orchestrated structure to contain, especially when filmed so beautifully by film director Barry Avrich (“The Last Mogul“). This is a performance for the stage, and one I’m sad to have missed.
The cinematic beauty of what is being orchestrated on stage wonderfully mystifies and engages. The design leads the eye to glide along by the mimicking of a camera panning shot or a forced close-up. The blackness moves in, giving our vantage point direction while demanding reflection on a character’s introspection and purpose. Even in Lepage’s recreation, involving a funny conversation between soldiers using text messaging, Coriolanus finds depth and humor in a clever stylized creation. It’s in Lepage’s daring that he finds theatrical beauty and power in the pseudo-filmatic construct. Destined to be forever remembered for its strong sense of self, the usually difficult long play marches forward with a sure-footed arrogance that is worthy of the titular character, but without any of the prideful disdain for his audience. His unique approach finds clarity in the vision, making this Coliolanus sing in the myriad of projections, shifting set pieces, and expansive horizons. I was never really clear, when watching the streamed filming of the stage show, how he was able to accomplish all of this technological perfection, but it’s there, for us all to understand and dive into with Shakespearian glee. Climb in and drive forth with speed, as you are sure to be amazed and enlightened with the ride.
The next filmed production in Stratford Festival on Film series is Macbeth, my favorite, and it looks delicious. For those who are able in these trying times, please consider donating to this or any arts organizations, as they strive to continue to provide artistic beauty and intellectual stimulation in a world shaken by this pandemic. My hope is that this gift will remind people just how vital the arts are to our communities, our sense of self, and (for many of us) our sanity.
So stay tuned in to Stratford Festival‘s line-up. It is most worthy of our time and interest.