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Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’ and Robert Lepage’s ethical fumbles

By Kate Croome, July 30, 2018

Admiring Robert Lepage has been no easy task of late. While no argument can be made against the internationally-renowned theatre creator’s ambition, recent controversies around erasure and oppression make it impossible to trust his judgement fully.

Interesting that William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” the blockbuster production marking Robert Lepage’s long-anticipated first time directing at the Stratford Festival, is not the Lepage premiere inciting the most tongues to wag this summer. In case you missed it, early July saw Lepage catching heat – and national media coverage – over the Montreal Jazz Festival’s inglorious cancellation of “Slav.” Described as a “theatrical odyssey based on slave songs,” the Lepage and Betty Bonifassi-conceived “Slav” featured an almost all-white cast picking cotton and closed at the Festival after mass protest and only two performances.

Less than two weeks passed and Lepage was making headlines again, this time announcing that “Kanata” – a show about Canada’s colonial history, conceived and performed entirely by, you guessed it- had been cancelled as its major funders head for the hills. Lepage’s reaction was disappointing, if not surprising – griping about artistic liberty and refusing to compromise his vision. “To me,” Lepage said in a statement, “what is most appalling is the intolerant discourse heard both on the street and in some media.”

Robert lepage, coriolanus, Stratford Festival, Tom Rooney, Stephen Ouimette

Tom Rooney, Stephen Ouimette in Coriolanus.
photo David Hou.

It is clear upon viewing “Coriolanus” that the ‘media’ to which Lepage refers is undoubtedly that of the social variety. In the program notes, he describes it as a “tool for ignorance,” and condemns Facebook for, in his view, simplifying discourse: “Where the number of ‘likes’ decides what we should program, I cringe.” Prose worthy of the public-despising Coriolanus, to be sure.

Lepage’s shoulders must be cramping these past weeks.

Ironically, Facebook is precisely the place where some inspired debate around “Coriolanus” is documented. “Coriolanus” has sparked a number of posts, both public and private, detailing widely differing reactions to the piece, and multiple ensuing chains of spirited back-and-forth between admirers and admonishers of Lepage.

The distinctive and divisive Robert Lepage.

Lepage is no doubt as distinctive a character in Canadian theatre as he is a divisive one, and regardless of content, a Lepage- or Ex Machina- branded production seems to inevitably draw the masses. Fittingly, the critical reception around his work is often vibrant, thoughtful and staunchly divided regardless of the medium in which it is expressed. I experienced this on a microcosmic scale at my matinee performance of “Coriolanus.” Lucy Peacock, as mother-Martius ( the “Mama Rose of Rome,” as the New York Times’ Jesse Green ingeniously calls her), is enjoying her second bout of spontaneous applause of the afternoon. In the height of the roar, a voice from behind me hisses, no doubt in response to a familial nay-sayer: “Shut up! She’s brilliant!”

The alienating Lepage has now many times produced the popularly-sanctified texts of William Shakespeare. Interestingly, Lepage’s first crack at the Bard was a version of “Coriolanus” entitled “Coriolon et le monster aux mille têtes” (or, “Coriolanus and the Thousand-Headed Monster”), performed in Quebec City in 1983. Lepage once again took on “Coriolanus” (this time, simply as “Coriolon”), as part of The Shakespeare Cycle, a trio of Shakespeare’s plays directed by Lepage, with playwright Michel Garneau’s translated French-language texts. The production premiered in France in 1992 and, with the Cycle, toured for two years. “Coriolon” specifically featured text translated into internationalized Québécois-French, and takes inspiration from the separatist culture shift occurring in Quebec at the time. Karen Fricker, scholar and theatre writer for The Toronto Star, in her chapter on Lepage in “The Routledge Companion to Director’s Shakespeare” (2010), describes this production as portraying “a tragedy of excessive and misplaced ambition and of the conflict between a dispossessed populace and an arrogant, patrician leader…reimagined as a critique of modern media realpolitik”

Flash forward to 2018, and Fricker identifies a similar characteristic in Lepage’s updated production: “Coriolanus’s disdain for the Roman public…seems more sympathetic in the context of social media pile-ons and groupthink”. Lepage’s impulse towards “Coriolanus” remains the same but has been updated for an increasingly technology-driven political and social culture. As Robert Cushman notes, however, this choice is only marginally effective without the literal bodies on stage, an implausibility in theatrical staging. Coriolanus is a thoroughbred elitist reluctantly posing as populist (with limited success) – a dangerous entity in today’s climate – but his power is diminished without the realization of masses passionately railing for or against him. Overall, despite Lepage’s budget, the Rome depicted in “Coriolanus” seems somewhat small without a greater emphasis on the swing of the bipartisan pendulum.

This scale is both helped and hindered by Lepage’s signature filmic style. The set – of which Lepage is credited as designer – is at times massive and other times narrow and deep, framed by black bars directing and restricting the pane of visibility (a Lepage trademark, lifted from the Shakespeare Cycle production). These experiential opposites have a two-pronged effect: while creating a beautiful fusion of live performance and film, they also serve to induce emotional distance from the action. Despite luminous performances like Peacock’s, the stakes of the drama never feel particularly high, which may account for any inflammatory rejection of her over-the-top offering.

Lucy Peacock, Tom Rooney, Stephen Ouimette.
photo David Hou.

Firmly on Team “She’s Brilliant!”, however, Globe and Mail theatre writer J. Kelly Nestruck is unabashed in his praise, hailing “Coriolanus” as “the show of the decade” at Stratford. While Cushman feels distanced, Nestruck asserts that Lepage’s style of framing the scene does great work in eluciading plot, motives, and intention. Nestruck unanimously lauds the cast, but singles out Andre Sills in the title role. Interestingly, Nestruck suggests an alternative intention at play in Sills’ performance, claiming that his portrayal of Coriolanus as a brute, reliant on rage, may “in part [be] owing to PTSD from his campaign in Corioles (which his new nickname must constantly trigger)”.

Is Robert Lepage’s Coriolanus a brute?

It’s a generous interpretation of the performance: while certainly there are clues to Coriolanus’s fragile mental state, neither Lepage nor Sills really unpack this concept. Coriolanus is already one of Shakespeare’s least-verbose tragic figures, but with a text that has been radically cut, the audience’s access to Coriolanus is even more limited. The relationship between Coriolanus and his rival Aufidius (played by an “unforgettable” Graham Abbey, by Nestruck’s esteem) has been singled out in most reviews I have encountered but to the obviously homoerotic undertones, propelled by the betrayal of Aufidius as a gay man involved with his young lieutenant. As Fricker notes, however, “it is not clear how Coriolanus is experiencing” the relationship, and I would argue that her estimation of Sill’s performance is not isolated to this instance.

Viewing “Coriolanus” in relation to “Slav” and “Kanata” leads me to suspect that this issue is the result of a different, less concrete type of ‘framing.’ The result, unfortunately, makes the character read as a problematic trope. In order to make Coriolanus a sympathetic figure, the narrative lens necessarily shifts to that of Aufidius, the man who admires him. Nestruck’s interpretation of Sills’s portrayal is an intriguing one, one that could invoke important dialogue around hyper-masculinity and mental health – but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. If it is, then the semiotic depiction of power and the direction of the audience’s focus in the final scene – to refrain from plot spoilers – become particularly oppressive, and perhaps an indication of Lepage’s unintentional but outmoded views on race and representation.

Despite its problems, “Coriolanus” is another welcome venture by the Stratford Festival into less traditional, less ‘safe’ interpretations of Shakespeare. It does not, however, exist in a vacuum outside of Lepage’s ethical fumbles. Lepage likely relates to Coriolanus, and must identify a certain valour with unyielding artistic integrity – a tragic flaw when combined with a distrust and resentment for those who dare ask questions. Luckily, the public has the final say – for it is not just ‘likes’, but dollars and cents that decide which art comes to pass. An informed public body that votes with its wallet will dictate cultural practice. For all its dangers – and there are many – social media is nevertheless a vital tool in allowing alternative views to be expressed and communities to form. An entity that Lepage must not stop questioning, but one that he must also learn to validate.

Kate Croome is a Toronto-based writer, performer, administrator and theatre-goer. She is a graduate of Brock University’s Dramatic Arts program, where she developed her critical eye through a praxis-based curriculum. Her work has been previously featured in and The Sound, Niagara’s Arts & Culture Paper.


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Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’ and Robert Lepage’s ethical fumbles

Keith Tomasek
30 July 2018
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