By Natalie Dewan, June 23, 2018
“Coriolanus,” the first collaboration between the Stratford Festival and legendary director Robert Lepage, opened Friday night,
The cast of “Coriolanus” includes Stratford stars who shone even in the preview performance, which I had the privilege of attending. Graham Abbey, Tom McCamus, André Sills, Tom Rooney, Stephen Ouimette, Lucy Peacock, Alexis Gordon and more, all bring their years of skill and experience to this, one of Shakespeare’s less-produced works.
“Coriolanus” itself provides plenty for this talented cast to explore, particularly in our current political climate. It takes only a cursory knowledge of the plot to see the striking relevance to today’s turbulent times.
The tragedy is the story of Caius Marcius, a Roman general dubbed Coriolanus for his success in the siege of Corioli. Coriolanus, prompted by his mother and friends, hopes to rise in political office but loses the favour of the people at the hands of two scheming tribunes. Unwilling to humble himself before the plebeians, Coriolanus is banished from Rome and makes an alliance with his old enemy.
This ancient story explores ideas of performance in politics and populism vs. informed, capable rule that are more relevant now than ever. As Lepage has discussed in several interviews (see The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star) and in his program notes, until recently many audience members would have been inclined to sympathize with the people rather than the arrogant Coriolanus. With the rise of populism in our society, however (often with disastrous consequences) it is much easier to understand Coriolanus’ mistrust of “the beast with many heads.”
While the story itself is therefore fascinating and unnervingly relevant, most audience members will likely be drawn to the theatre to see the work of director and set designer Robert Lepage. Lepage is an internationally acclaimed director who has created innovative, groundbreaking theatre independently and with his production company, Ex Machina (the company is a collaborator on “Coriolanus”).
For this production, Lepage envisions social media replacing the riots and mob mentality of Coriolanus’ time, and for which he seems to have as much disdain as Coriolanus has for the plebs.
Lepage has set the story in modern day, staging the whole play in a cinematic form with a series of moving screens that carefully frame each scene.
Lepage’s work is always unique, and this is no exception. I have truly never seen anything like the complicated system of screens, which are used as both digital backdrops to enhance existing sets, and which slide in all directions to create various “windows” through which the action is seen.
The staging is striking, even brilliant- as Lepage is known for. This production is intentionally cinematic (it even includes opening credits), and Lepage has spoken of the staging providing the movie-like quality of limiting the audience’s view. In complete contrast to Shakespearean staging, when plays would have been performed in broad daylight, on an outdoor stage with few large props, in this production the audience only sees certain angles. As Lepage explained to The Globe and Mail, the audience does not “enter the world of the play,” rather, their viewpoint is carefully controlled.
This controlled view fits well with the modern setting, the focus on media, and the themes of performative politics at work in “Coriolanus.” However, I couldn’t help feeling that the wow-factor somewhat took away from my experience of the play itself.
At the risk of sounding like an old purist (when in fact I was by far one of the youngest people in the theatre… which is a problem for another time), I go to the theatre because I want to be immersed in the world of the play. I want to see the whole stage and to fill in the gaps myself, not to feel as though I am watching a movie.
I feel, as many do, that part of the magic of theatre is the shared act of imaginative creation. Of course, people have almost always used some sort of technology (from masks, to projections and rigging), to enhance that imagination. But is there such thing as a step too far? At what point is technology doing too much of the imagining for us? Can a play become too cinematic?
These questions are matters of opinion, with no real answer. I am certainly not one to dismiss interdisciplinary work, the use of technology in theatre, or interesting approaches that bring more audiences to lesser-known works. All of these can be very positive forces, especially in a world where live theatre is fighting an often-losing battle with digital media. Yet as I watched this production I found myself distracted by the fascinating sets and brilliant transitions, often paying more attention to them than to the powerful, chillingly relevant story.
Perhaps this is only a sign that Lepage is ahead of his time. Maybe as this technology becomes more common in theatre, it will fade into the background, and the story will once again take centre stage. But I am left with a lingering feeling that if theatre moves increasingly towards the cinematic, and less work is required of our imaginations, we have a magical world of shared imagination to lose.
Natalie Dewan is a Toronto-based arts administrator with particular passions for the outreach, communications, and the performing arts. She holds an MA in Arts and Heritage: Policy, Management, and Education from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Natalie can usually be found writing about, working for, or enjoying arts and culture in Toronto and beyond. Read all Natalie Dewan’s stories