(STRATFORD, ON) – We recently had the pleasure of experiencing a spectacular, thought-provoking play at the Stratford Festival. Coriolanus, a William Shakespeare play, addresses the rise and fall of a Roman ruling class politician who refuses to compromise despite the consequences.
The play is superbly acted, modern, and surprisingly delightful and trailblazing in its special effects; much the way the National Ballet’s production of Alice in Wonderland was when it was first staged. This play is probably the best play that I have seen at the Stratford Festival and I have seen many plays there.
The Sad Tale of a Stubborn Man
The play chronicles the adult life of Caius Martius, or Coriolanus; his Roman title. A high ranking general and hero-turned politician.
Coriolanus’ elite attitude alienates the masses, causing his decline and banishment from Rome following a mass mob uprising. The uprising ensued following the manipulation of public opinion by two Tribunes appointed to represent the masses following unrest due to food shortages.
Following his loss of title, social standing, and expulsion from Rome, Caius Martius sinks into anger, depression, and despair eventually espousing the rebel leader whom he had previously defeated in battle. The purpose of the alliance is to attack Rome and destroy the people and institutions which caused his expulsion.
One of these institutions is the rise of the masses and democracy.
Caius Martius’ exile has clearly failed to alter his character or opinions. He remains as determined to crush the emerging new order as he was prior to his exile. Is the uncompromising undemocratic protagonist of Shakespeare’s last play a villain or a hero? Is he admirable or deplorable?
This might well depend on your perspective and perhaps your political point of view.
The Nature vs Nurture Subtext
Is a person a product of their nature or upbringing? The play attempts to address this question.
Martius’ relationship with his mother, Volumnia, is a theme that runs through the play. Volumnia is, by any account, a strong and ambitious person, having raised her only son without a father. She most definitely influences the actions of her son, molding him into a successful soldier and ruling class Roman leader.
One might take the position that this was her responsibility as an upper class Roman mother and single parent.
In reality, Volumnia probably represents the expectations of the privileged Roman establishment rarely concerned with the masses or the implications of their actions on those they consider to be socially subordinate. For Volumnia and her son, the potential backlash of public opinion becomes irrelevant until it is too late.
At some point, Volumnia effectively changes her position but, unfortunately, her son lacks flexibility and sadly clings to his old way of life and values to the bitter end, despite his mother’s pleading tears.
Martius is just that stubborn and resistant to change, even when change would sustain his survival. It is simply not in his nature to compromise and, unlike other Shakespeare protagonists, there is little in him which is redeeming.
Modern Day Implications
Robert Lepage brings a modern sensibility to the direction and production of the play, which delightfully resembles a film. The use of intriguingly beautiful special effects, including a talking head, texting discussions between two young soldiers, and a screen-like stage with film inserts, such as opening credits, support this modern vision.
The period wardrobe at times takes us back to Mussolini’s Italy or, perhaps, Franco’s Spain or Peron’s Argentina. This may have been intentional given that Coriolanus and Rome’s elite were battling the rise of the masses and democracy. However, the military wardrobe is modern camouflage. Could this be a veiled reference or a warning for current times?
Lepage also skilfully and subtly transformed the play, making it convincingly relatable to current times where Twitter and other social media platforms have made it possible for public opinion to be expressed, whether positive, negative, informed, or misinformed.
These public dialogues, although empowering, can also create fake news narratives. In Coriolanus, the opinions of the masses are manipulated by their Tribunes. Today, social media can be used to manipulate public opinion with political consequences far beyond anticipation, challenging not only democracies, but also core values and humanity.
In Rome, the challenge to the political order was democracy and in today’s world it is the global rise of right and left wing extremists.
The Cast and More Information
The play was superbly acted with brilliant performances by Andre Sills, as Coriolanus, and Lucy Peacock, as his mother, Volumnia.
This exceptional, thought provoking, and entertaining play is at the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theater until October 20. For more information, refer to the Stratford Festival website.