How very disappointing in deed to having so looked forward to a telling of Shakespeare’s final political tragedy by a director-designer whose inventiveness is as well-known as the delectable taste of poutine or death-defying acrobatics still owned by Quebeckers (and look no further than to the Cirque’s Totem to see the creative artist’s singular skills under the big top).
Instead of escaping fake news, shallowness of thought and unmoderated commentaries filling social media to overflowing, Robert Lepage transformed the stately Avon Theatre into the Coriolanus YouTube channel—replete with literally framing every scene, employing various aspect ratios that would delight any fan of Netflix or various other video-on-demand portals.
Worse still (for those expecting the substance of the play to be the thing), the Bard’s savvy, succinct—at times searing—lines, observations and declamations were inexplicably reinforced electronically making a mockery of the talented Thespians at his disposal and frequently muddying the delivery/comprehension to the crowd due to cavernous echoes from hell. (The other, soon annoying sound intrusion being the mechanical utterances of the framing devices as they opened wide, closed to black even as some patrons were unable to view the action as well as more centrally located others.
Despite many—typical and expected for the time—gruesome scenes of war, murder and mayhem contemplated by Shakespeare and his literary “sources”, Lepage left most of the carnage to a covey of video projections at best and off-camera imagination at worst. (Accordingly, neither Coriolanus or arch enemy Tullus Aufidius seemed anything more than ambitious men, rather than revelling in bloodthirsty skirmishes that took no prisoners.)
That choice, to be sure, made for a much more family friendly rendition but severely dumbed down the anti-hero’s demise when his petulant pride fell to earth for the last time.
Curiously, there was so much booze flowing (largely amongst the “voice of the people” Tribunes, smooth-tongued Menenius as well as a few shots for Coriolanus, General Cominius and the principal’s mother, Volumina) that it was hard to feel much pity/empathy for those on both sides of the “pridal” divide.
A few flickers of the love that dare not speak its name between the main protagonists while wrestling to common cause and most notably between Aufidius and his steadfast lieutenant with messed-up bedclothes in the background, provided another layer of confused characterization that well have made even Shakespeare blush.
Finally, you know that the world is a changin’ when the biggest laugh of the night came as copious lines between two soldiers, announcing, “What’s the news in Rome?” were silently delivered by text messages projected onto a screen.
One can only hope that our most creative stage directors will soon lose their infatuation with presenting classics in the 21st century technology in 21st century locations and garb then fall back on giving theatregoers a much deeper experience than currently playing on their so-called smartphones.
The ruinous icing on this theatrical cake—and absolute verisimilitude—came from the man beside whose Android shortly after intermission, burst into sonic ringtone life. Instantly chagrined—finally muted—that did not stop him from keeping the glow going by replying to the text message instead of watching the intended drama unfold. Get ye to Le Cirque!
This medium is at one with the message
Playing the title role and also directing, Fiennes has very effectively used the medium of television and film to bring this tale of patricians versus plebeians to all its gory life.
Unlike Lepage who seems to revel in loud declamations (notably the near-hysteric Lucy Peacock as Volumina), Fiennes more wisely takes the road of understatement from his stellar cast (including a riveting take on Coriolanus’ mother from Vanessa Redgrave and a compellingly nuanced treatment of everyone’s favourite go-between, Menenius, by Brian Cox—even to his stoic acceptance of what the future holds: most assuredly without him).
Here the violence is as brutal as it is swift—definitely not for the younger set but still honest in its depiction of the “glory” of war.
What both productions shy away from are key lines in the original:
Second Servingman: This peace is nothing but to rust iron, increase tailors and breed ballad-makers.
From a relative nobody comes much wisdom
And the notion that Coriolanus has been banished as “enemy to the people” must cheer Trump supporters everywhere who believe that the mainstream media is out for nothing else but their own pride and position.
Here’s hoping a future production—whether cinematic or theatrical—will fully embrace the wisdom and truthfulness—on all sides—of the original. JWR