There’s a particular magic to live theatre that you can almost glimpse in an online transmission, but it’s not really the same, not quite so magical. When I see Coriolanus get into a car onstage that seems to drive into a rainstorm, and then a forest, all while the car is actually stationary before me in the middle of the stage? That’s magic. On the desktop of my computer, I can intellectually grasp how this is really cool really amazing. But it’s not the same level of impossibility, not quite as remarkable.
Everyone may be locked down, all the theatres & concert venues may be closed for the pandemic, but the Stratford Shakespearean Festival are giving us a kind of online festival of past glories, reminding us of what we should already know: that this is one of the greatest companies in the world.
Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina work in partnership with the Stratford Festival. What you see is directed for film by Barry Avrich. An auteur with a recognizable style offers many of the same things you’ve seen before. If you’re fascinated by the possibilities of theatre you’ll enjoy watching Lepage play with his new toys, dancing on the cutting edge of evolving technologies: the new ways to tell stories.
Did you catch that phrase? Lepage said “We’re asking the actors to perform in a video sandwich”.
I’m reminded of his work on the Wagner Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. I heard criticism that Lepage seemed to place the singers in a narrow space in front of the big expensive machine that was simultaneously a set and a projection surface. Of course if you go to the show with stipulations you’ll likely be frustrated and angry.
I loved it because I’d never seen anything like it.
Coriolanus is the next generation after his Ring machinery, using infrared to ensure that the projections and light are harmonized rather than fighting one another (ie when light washes out the projection, as we sometimes saw in the Ring operas).
Lepage also builds upon something marvelous that we saw in 887. You may recall that at one point in his one-man meditation upon his past, we get a series of miniatures replicating the moment when France’s President Charles de Gaulle stirred up all kinds of turmoil by saying “Vive le Québec Libre” to an eager francophone audience. We see Lepage moving the tiny car while a camera in the car captures the bystanders as though they were real (just like the picture below). It’s crazy & profound, that we’re watching this man reminisce about one of the most problematic moments of his childhood while seeming to play with a toy.
This time he’s messing with us in our perceptions of war & heroism. Coriolanus’ son plays with toys onstage, even as a camera projects an enlarged version of them in behind. Later we’ll see someone playing with war toys, while we hear battle sounds. We may well wonder: is war a game played with toys or something real? Are men just boys playing with their toys?
Whatever else you might say about Lepage, he is a wonderful director. The relationships in the Shakespeare have never been clearer for me, offered with intriguing overtones but never cluttered. So yes we may notice that Aufidius may seem to adore Coriolanus a bit too much. They wrestle and embrace, a moment verging on the homoerotic, a moment fully justifiable from the adoration we see & hear expressed in the text. André Sills is a wildly passionate Coriolanus, totally vulnerable when we first meet him, more & more furious as the play goes on. Graham Abbey is Tullus Aufidius, his greatest enemy & yet his eventual ally, and finally, the one who betrays him. Lucy Peacock as Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia is the only one who matches his passion.
You may not realize how good this play is, until you see this production. That’s perhaps the best argument for what Lepage & his team accomplish, that they’re advocates for Shakespeare, clarifying & emphasizing the key moments of the play. There are many touches of laughter & levity as you’d expect. We’re in a world that’s a fascinating mix of modern & classical, 21st century and ancient. The class relationships, the politics, the personalities, all cohere perfectly.
Coriolanus is available online until May 21st. I’ll watch it again, I suggest you should check it out if at all possible.