Stratford's Coriolanus onscreen: Lepage's vision is blurred by the camera, but the message stays clear

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B-plus

The great Quebec theatre innovator, Robert LePage made a splash last summer at Stratford with his multimedia-infused production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. It starred Andre Sills as the Roman war hero, who, too proud or noble to pander to the common rabble to become elected consul, turns on his people and allies with Rome’s enemies. 

Though not a popular play, Coriolanus is a historically contentious one. It’s often regarded as Shakespeare’s most political work, with the haughty Roman general variously portrayed in historical productions as a tyrant and an anti-populist hero. The Nazis treated it as a celebration of strong leadership. After the war, it was banned for its celebration of militarism. 

Andre Sills as the imposing, militaristic protagonist in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, in Cineplexes Saturday

Andre Sills as the imposing, militaristic protagonist in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, in Cineplexes Saturday

The production is the 11th of films released in Cineplex Cinemas as part of the Stratford Festival on Film - part of a 10-year project, under the direction of Barry Avrich, to put all Shakespeare’s plays on the screen over the course of a decade.  That’s 38 films in all (including The Two Noble Kinsmen, jointly attributed to Shakespeare and John Fletcher), slightly one-upping the 37 plays included on BBC’s Television project, which ran from 1978-85. 

The LePage production offers a few special challenges, in that it uses different kinds of video onstage. LePage has described the actors performing in a “video sandwich” between foreground and background projection. And it’s easy to imagine it was startling to experience live in the Avon Theatre. 

There are text messages that seem to appear in the air, call-in talk shows and breaking television news that conveys the opinion of the masses. Some of the ideas seem similar to those in John Hirsch’s Old Globe production in 1988, which used banks of onstage television monitors, showing modern war footage and game shows, to suggest the enthusiasms of the vulgar throngs. 

But to see multi-media on film has the opposite of an immersive effect:  You need to take an imaginative leap to understand the gasp from the audience when a character, on a theatre stage, climbs into a car and apparently drives through a rain storm. 

As Coriolanus, Sills has a physically imposing presence and strong delivery to suggest he’d be a bad guy to cross, and the scenes where he grudgingly makes public speeches suggest the comical awkwardness of a pro athlete on the banquet circuit. But he’s a hard character to like, or understand. Few of us could share his contempt for the starving poor (“scabs” “curs”). The gamble here is that we are similarly repulsed by the crude inflammatory populism of social media or talk radio, which are some of the connections LePage tries to make.

Pandering to the crowd, of course, isn’t just a problem in politics and at times the Stratford production works a little too hard to find the familiar in this pitiless play. His mother, Volumnia, Lucy Peacock gets laughs from the Stratford audience as a smothering stage mom, though I might have preferred her exhibiting more cold-blooded rage (“Anger’s my meat!”) and less flouncing. She employs the stage actor’s technique of illustrating text with gestures (touching one’s stomach at the word “bowel,” for example) which is jarring on film.  

Similarly, in the scene where Coriolanus joins forces with his former arch-enemy, the Volscian general, Aufidius (Graham Abbey), the latter’s  expressions of unity are deliberately homo-erotic (“I have nightly since dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me; we have been down together in my sleep…”). But the double entendre about the lust for battle turns into a single meaning as we watch Aufidius wrap his arms around Coriolanus from behind and begin massaging his torso. 

Where the play rings most pertinent and witty is in depicting the milieu of what we would call the boys in the smoke-filled backrooms, played with sharp performances by a trio of Stratford veterans. The “political operatives” include Coriolanus’s cynical advisor, Menenius (Tom McCamus), and, on the other side, Stephen Ouimette and Tom Rooney as the pro-rabble tributes, akin to modern-day crooked union bosses. Their exchanges are typically staged with the men sitting at a long bar facing the audience, exchanging barbs while knocking back cocktails. The milieu feels so comfortably accurate, you wonder why more Shakespeare productions haven’t invoked it.

Coriolanus. Directed for the screen by Barry Avrich. Directed on the stage by Robert LePage. Written by William Shakespeare. Starring Andre Sills, Lucy Peacock, Graham Abbey, Tom McCamus, Stephen Ouimette and Tim Rooney. Coriolanus shows in Cineplex cinemas across Canada, beginning March 23.