Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival

VOL I: Issue 1


THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL (in association with Ex Machina) presents


Written by William Shakespeare

Directed and Designed by Robert Lepage

Featuring: André Sills, Graham Abbey, Wayne Best, Michael Blake, David Collins, Martha Farrell, Oliver Gamble, Farhang Ghajar, Alexis Gordon, Tom McCamus, Eli McCready-Branch, Nick Nahwegahbow, Stephen Ouimette, Lucy Peacock, Tom Rooney, E.B. Smith, Jonathan Sousa, Emilio Vieira, Brigit Wilson and various Senators, Soldiers, Citizens played by members of the company.

Reviewed by Robin Breon

Posted July 31, 2018

Coriolanus is often referred to as one of Shakepeare’s Roman plays. The other three being Julius Caesar (also part of the current SF season with Seanna McKenna in the title role), Anthony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus.

You’ll note that the SF cast list above concludes with “and various Senators, Soldiers, Citizens played by members of the company.” This emphasis on the role of the body politic in ancient Rome is what has intrigued everyone from Bertolt Brecht to Steve Bannon.

When the former Trump advisor was working as a Hollywood executive, Bannon penned a treatment of a hip hop musical version of the play (in collaboration with Julia Jones) set in Los Angeles during the 1990s in which the Bloods and the Crips were engaged in a gang war. Ms Jones has stated in interviews that Bannon “loves war” and is a big fan of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Brecht was working on an adaption of the play at the time of his death in 1956. There was enough of it completed to allow the Berlinner Ensemble to mount the production and it soon became one of the most successful plays in their repertory. For Brecht, the actantial crisis of leadership and the class conflict between the plebeians and the patricians was central to the play’s interpretation. Shakespeare’s Act I, Scene I, stage directions read “Rome. A street. Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons.”

So the stakes are high right from the git-go. The common people, plagued with famine, are in open revolt against the one percent of their day and are resolved to die rather than to starve to death. They are especially aggrieved by one Caius Martius (later to be called Coriolanus) who is  “chief enemy to the people” because, as a military general, he protects the ruling class along with their hoarded granaries of wheat and corn. His  substantial military service on behalf of the state is written off by the First Citizen flatly: “…he did it to please his mother… .” For his part, Caius Martius refers to the rabble as “dissentious rogues” whose rebellion he would gladly crush in a minute if he were given the order to do so by the Roman senate. “And let me use my sword, I’ll make a quarry with thousands of these quarter’d slaves, as high as I could pick a lance.”

Margaret Webster insightfully opined on the relevance of the play when she observed (in 1942), “But to a world deeply engaged in an armed appraisal of totalitarianism and democracy Coriolanus does have something to say.”

More’s the pity then, that director Robert Lepage has been unable to find a way to let his contemporized version of Coriolanus speak for itself rather than reducing it to a familial psycho-drama between a domineering mother and her war hero son with generous underpinnings of Oedipus complex, homo-eroticism and struggles with post traumatic stress syndrome. The opening scene described above is staged as a semi- polite radio call-in show until a protestor breaks a window which interrupts the scene.

André Sills plays Caius Martius, the Roman general who disdains democracy as much as he does his own country’s mortal enemies, the Volscians – that is, until he defects and joins them. Sills’ performance is a focussed and sweeping portrayal of a willful autocrat who seems to take advice and direction from no one but his own mother, Volumnia (Lucy Peacock). He strikes just the right balance between raging expression and cold, ruthless repression. With the stoic Coriolanus there is no middle ground emotion.

His chief military rival, Tullus Aufidius is played by Graham Abbey with the two forming a mutual admiration/sparring society early on in the play. Caius Martius describes Aufidius admiringly, saying, “were I am anything but what I am, I would wish me only he… he is a lion that I am proud to hunt.” As Coriolanus, he will get his chance when he banishes Rome and goes to fight on the side of the Volscians. Ultimately though, the hunter will become the hunted.

Numerous writers and critics over the years have noted that the story and characterizations portrayed in Coriolanus are so over the top they are almost satirically comedic. Lucy Peacock’s portrayal of Volumnia has taken this thesis and pushed it to a higher level. Don’t look for the restrained brooding of an opportunistic stage mother trying to advance her son’s political career as Vanessa Redgrave played it in the 2012 movie with Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus. Seeing the SF production in an early preview performance it was clear that Peacock’s Volumnia would go straight for the laugh lines wherever she could find them.

The hyper histrionics really hit their peak outside the city of Corioli, the Volscian’s capitol. After a bit of give and take, the troops following Caius Martius are reluctant to enter the city gates so he goes it alone. Truly, we are now into the fetishized violent world of the action hero or the stuff of video games in popular culture, i.e. Quentin Tarantino land. The fearless Roman general prevails, of course, and is forever after known as Coriolanus, the fierce fighter who prevailed over the entire city of Corioli. This is a scene we hear described rather than see on stage and with all of Lepage’s command of digital wizardry, it seemed to me to be a missed opportunity not to do more with it.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, a trio of political fixers, are busy massaging the message. After calming the rebellious citizens in Act I, Scene I, Menenius Agrippa (Tom McCamus) is now negotiating between the senate and Volumnia who is pushing for her son’s election to that body. While the senate, in answer to the incipient revolution building in the play’s opening, has decided that what the common people really need is increased (proportional?) representation so they have appointed more tribunes, including two cynical political hacks named, in appropriately rhymed couplet, Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus (Stephen Ouimette and Tom Rooney).

In no time at all and in equal measure, they hypocritically undermine both Coriolanus and the constituents they purport to represent. With this troika of Stratford veterans in strong supporting roles, it is impossible to find fault.

Would that the playwright had provided the remaining women in the cast equal opportunity to excel. Both Virgilia (Alexis Gordon) who is wife to Coriolanus, and her friend Valeria (Brigit Wilson) are underdeveloped characters. By all appearances, Virgilia is a dedicated spouse in a loveless marriage. When her friend Valeria suggests they should spend time together, Virgilia defers and says she must await her husband’s return from the war. Exit Valeria. The idea that Virgilia and Valeria together might have some quality stage time and a fleeting chance to reflect upon their condition (perhaps not unlike the dialog between Desdemona and Emilia toward the end of Othello) is a subject left unexplored.

War, jingoism, xenophobia, nativism, rule by autocrats in service of the oligarchy, disdain for democratic institutions and judicial process, the oppression of minorities. To reprise Margaret Webster, “Coriolanus does have something to say.”

Coriolanus is playing at the Avon Theatre through October 20th                                                         

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