Stratford Festival production of Coriolanus is a visually stunning theatrical experience
From left: Graham Abbey, Andre? Sills, Tom Rooney. (Photography by Clay Stang - The Garden)
At the moment Coriolanus’ majestic bust, perched atop an ornate pedestal, suddenly transforms into an electronically animated head, it becomes clear why director and designer Robert Lepage is globally acclaimed for his theatrical innovations.
In an age both dominated by – and fascinated with – social media and the surging growth of populism within the socio-political arena, who better than Lepage and his production company Ex Machina to oversee a stunning visual marriage of classic literature and modernistic technique in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
Tantalizing the audience with stylized opening credit sequences commonly associated with films, he cleverly offers up a symbolic portent of considerably more daring cinematic tinkering to come throughout the nearly three-hour production, a less-than-subtle hint this will be unlike the customary theatrical experience to which purists have become accustomed over the years.
While the lion’s share of media and public attention has been understandably showered on Lepage, the opening night performance showed in convincing fashion how a stellar company, boasting the likes of seasoned veteran actors Graham Abbey, Lucy Peacock, Tom McCamus, Stephen Ouimette, Tom Rooney and the ferociously riveting André Sills as the head-strong Caius Martius (Coriolanus), can meet, and even at times surpass, the director’s gloriously inventive approach.
Wringing the most from the juicy roleof Coriolanus’ manipulative, strong-willed and power-hungry mother Volumnia, Peacock literally squeezes every imaginable bit of delightfully giddy humour mixed with melodramatic ranting in a series of magnificent soliloquies.
Loud, abrasive and persistent, she is convincing as the main proponent behind the failed move to have her son run for consul, Rome’s highest public office. In Peacock’s skillful hands, she is a force of nature for both his rise and fall.
McCamus as the ruler’s self-serving, cool-as-a-cucumber political aide, confidante and longtime friend, Menenius, is mesmerizing as a skilled government shill. At all times, he is comfortably at ease, whether dwarfed by columns of television screens, cosying up to the ever-present electronic-media interviewers and the strategically located paparazzi and even quizzing Volscian military guards in the most inopportune moments as to the availability of Coriolanus for a quick chat.
As Coriolanus’ chief adversaries away from the battlefield, where he is most successful, Ouimette and Rooney are the delightfully scheming trouble-making tribunes of the people, Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus.
Watching them act as a kind of political tag team is a sheer delight, as they shift from one public place to another, deviously fanning the flames of populism among the Roman plebeians that results in Coriolanus’s rapid downfall
For the multi-faceted and both physical and emotionally demanding role of Volscian general Aufidius, Abbey rises to the occasion in a splendidly exuberant fashion. As Coriolanus’ worthy military adversary, he is first called upon to showcase his compassion for the cause of fighting for his beloved people.
Yet as the Roman leader is exiled from his homeland and ultimately defects to the Volscian side, Abbey deftly renders a finely etched portrait of a gay man, known first for his involvement with his Lieutenant (Johnathan Sousa) and then Coriolanus.
The embodiment of arrogance, military fearlessness and obsessive pride, Sills is remarkably effective as he revels in the kind of populist mentality that fuels his success as a leader and his continuing disdain and impatience with the common people.
While applauded for his military prowess, he is otherwise viewed by the plebeians he so detests as the cause of the current food shortage and the subsequent rationale for public outrage and rebellion.
Lepage’s unique technological approach to broaching plots and subplots of one of Shakespeare’s least produced works may be complex. Yet the myriad of rotating screens, shifting windows of action and printed verbiage –and a centre stage oscillating between greater and diminished sizes and the delightful intrusion of iPhone conversations – only enhances audience enjoyment.
Rather than detract from the joy of appreciating the sheer imagination involved in a traditional theatric presentation, such modernistic techniques are more likely to attract first-timer audience members curious to taste the pleasures of live performances while being lured to such events with symbols from their more familiar computerized visual terrain dotting the onstage landscape.
An entrancing modern adaptation courtesy of a bold and daring director collaborating with a skilled star-studded acting company, Coriolanus merits critical and public recognition. Without question, it’s a major hit for the Stratford Festival that will whet the appetites of old and new theatre-goers alike.