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Theatre Reviews Review: Robert Lepage’s Coriolanus is the show of the decade at the Stratford Festival

  • Title: Coriolanus
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Genre: Roman tragedy
  • Director: Robert Lepage
  • Actors: André Sills, Lucy Peacock, Graham Abbey
  • Company: The Stratford Festival in collaboration with Ex Machina
  • Venue: Avon Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 20, 2018

rating

Coriolanus is a landmark production for the Stratford Festival. Maybe for William Shakespeare, too.

If you care about either, you’ve got to see it – and, if you don’t, you need to see it even more.

Quebec director and designer Robert Lepage, in a triumphant debut at Stratford greeted by opening night calls of “bravo,” takes this complex Roman tragedy and refuses to simplify it – instead, rendering a clear and cinematic version that’s riveting, invigorating and smart.

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André Sills, left, as Coriolanus and Michael Blake as Cominius in Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival.

David Hou/Stratford Festival

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known stories. It begins with Roman general Caius Martius (André Sills) leading a siege against an enemy city called Corioles, defended by his archrival Aufidius (Graham Abbey).

For his heroic efforts in the victorious battle, Martius is awarded the name “Coriolanus” by the general Cominius (Michael Blake) – and the Roman senator Menenius (Tom McCamus), a father figure to him, leads a push to have him appointed to the role of consul. His ambitious mother Volumnia (Lucy Peacock) cannot conceal her delight.

But the man inside the hero with this new name, fame and power is not comfortable with any of this – and especially the requirement that he temper his tone and ingratiate himself to the regular people of Rome to keep them.

Two tribunes representing the people (Stephen Ouimette and Tom Rooney) resent and fear this and plot Coriolanus’s political downfall – and, soon enough, instead of fighting for his home, he finds himself turning against it and, to borrow a phrase from another play on now at Stratford, acquainting himself with strange bedfellows.

In the Avon Theatre, Mr. Lepage stages this play as if it were a blockbuster movie with his team of technical wizards from his own internationally renowned company, Ex Machina.

Four black sliding panels that descend from above, rise from below and come in from the side form boxes around the action – limiting or focusing the audience’s view of what’s on stage. Within these frames, Mr. Lepage creates the equivalent of “shots” in a film: We “zoom” in on a single character’s face, or see the tribunes and the senators in side-by-side rooms as if in split screen.

French director Philippe Decouflé pioneered this technique in the Cirque du Soleil show Iris, while Canadian director Peter Hinton employed it memorably, too, in a production of Lady Windermere’s Fan at the Shaw Festival. But I’ve never seen it dominate a play to this extent and always in service of story – Mr. Lepage cleverly and quickly carries us from bars to battlefields and even on a road trip from the outskirts of Rome deep into Volscian territory.

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Is it necessary to replicate what Shakespeare’s words already do with visuals? Perhaps not, but it takes some of the heavy lifting (and listening) off a modern audience’s shoulders and allows space to appreciate the nuances of the plot.

And it’s not man versus the machine: In the end, the true surprise of Mr. Lepage’s production is that so many of the performances send shivers down the spine – and it was them I ended raving about afterwards at the bar. He’s brought out career-high turns from this troupe of Stratford actors.

Mr. Sills centres it all as a Coriolanus who is commanding and in control on the battlefield, but quick to lose his cool elsewhere, in part owing to PTSD from his campaign in Corioles (which his new name must constantly trigger). He seems to have developed a physical allergy to phoniness and pretension – and Mr. Sills is sensational squirming through a world in which both politicians and the people are constantly performing on radio, on TV or their smartphones.

Dangerous and anti-democratic, perhaps, this Coriolanus, but it resonates deeply when he refuses to fake an apology to the tribunes who view him as prideful: “I will not do’t / lest I surcease to honour mine own truth.” Whether it’s post-truth politicians or political correctness driving you mad at the moment, here’s the guy to live out your fantasy of burning it all down.

But then, once you’re high on revenge, there’s Lucy Peacock’s Volumnia, who at first seems obsessed only with honours and appearances, but eventually delivers a passionate plea for peace to her son. The veteran actress had me on the edge of my seat during it. Spontaneous applause followed: When was the last time you saw a Shakespeare speech stop a show?

A third unforgettable performance came from Mr. Abbey – who, under the direction of Mr. Lepage, brings out the homoeroticism in Aufidius’s obsession with his enemy Coriolanus. (It’s hard to ignore it throbbing right there in his dialogue: “I have nightly since / Dreamt of encounters ’twixt thyself and me; / We have been down together in my sleep, / Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat.”) Hate, love, disgust, vengeance, admiration are all at war in him in every line.

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What’s ironic about Mr. Lepage’s Coriolanus is that while it is inspired by cinema, it would be impossible to truly capture for cinemas as Stratford has done with its Shakespeare productions in recent seasons.

This is one you have to see it in person to truly appreciate – and more than any other I’ve seen at the Stratford Festival over the past decade, it’s worth the trip, down the highway, across the country or, indeed, around the world.

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