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Innovative Shakespeare Production Makes Lone U.S. Stop in Hanover

  • André Sills appears in a scene from "Coriolanus," in which he plays the title character. (Courtesy photograph)

  • The Stratford Festival's production of Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" uses video screens and other technics to break through the boundaries of the stage. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Emilio Vieira (left) and Farhang Ghajar appear in a scene from "Coriolanus," in which Shakespeare's dialog appears on screens as texts. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Correspondent
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Roman general Coriolanus returns home from a victorious military campaign. A wily patrician senator sees in him a potential leader of Rome. Coriolanus’s fiercely ambitious mother sees in his rise the power she wanted for herself. And a hungry, exploited, angry populace rumbles in the background.

Written in the latter stages of Shakespeare’s career, Coriolanus is not often performed, perhaps because Coriolanus is a truculent anti-hero who disdains any efforts to turn him into a glad-handing politician.

Or perhaps it’s because Coriolanus is almost exclusively a political play, with astute but verbose passages about the nature of power, leadership and the fickle nature of the common people to whom the politicians pay lip service.

But, like other Shakespeare plays, Coriolanus has the knack of seeming absolutely of the moment, which is the case with a highly-praised production from the Stratford Festival in Ontario, arriving at the end of November at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College.

To have the Stratford Festival, considered one of the leading producers of Shakespeare (and other theater) in North America, play its only U.S. engagement of Coriolanus in Hanover is “a really big deal,” said the Hop’s director, Mary Lou Aleskie, in a phone interview.

The Hopkins Center has brought Shakespeare to Hanover before in the form of HD broadcasts from England’s National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. But, Aleskie said, “we haven’t had a lot of opportunity for the best of live Shakespeare on our stages because a lot of it is international and on a very large scale,” which would make it difficult for smaller, regional theaters to import or take on.

“The timeliness of this play couldn’t be more relevant. This notion of the dynamic between a leader, politics and the populace is playing out in governments not just here but all over the world, with nationalistic trends emerging, and the changing role of the populace. That’s something that’s really relevant and has given us a platform for lots and lots of conversations with our faculty and audience,” Aleskie said.

The production is directed by Robert Lepage, a visionary and sometimes controversial Canadian director, who has cut the play’s original length from four hours to about three and has staged it in modern dress (suits, military camouflage, tuxedos) rather than the togas and armor of ancient Rome. Lepage founded the multidisciplinary theater, dance and film and video art company Ex Machina in 1994. Ex Machina is based in Quebec City.

Thanks to Daniel Bernstein, a Dartmouth alumnus who is co-chair of the Hood Museum of Art’s board of advisors, and a director on the Stratford festival’s Endowment Foundation board, Aleskie said she was able to forge a connection with Lepage. She first saw Coriolanus in a workshop at Ex Machina.

Lepage has been criticized this year for not casting First Nations actors and black actors, respectively, in two productions centered on Indigenous Canadian and African-American history and experience. Coriolanus, however, has earned mostly ecstatic reviews from the Canadian, American and British press.

Due to its success with critics and audiences, the Stratford production was extended, and ended its run there on Nov. 3.

Not long after, some of the cast came to Dartmouth to participate in workshops with students and teachers, both from the college and from area schools. This week the crew and technical staff arrived to begin prepping the Hopkins Center’s Moore Theater.

“We wanted to make sure that we got it here soon after to keep the original company,” Aleskie said.

The production is notable for its virtuosic stagecraft. Lepage uses cinematic wizardry to conjure moments and scenes that transcend the confines of a stage, transporting the audience to battles, banquets, restaurants and the Roman Senate.

In a Stratford video about the production, Lepage describes the actors as performing in a kind of “video sandwich,” with imagery projected behind them, onto them and in front of them, using infrared technology. For instance, in a scene where Coriolanus has to get from one location to another, the actor jumps into a (real but stationary) car and appears to drive through the night in a rainstorm (projected imagery.)

Lepage comments on the ubiquity of our instantaneous digital surveillance society, and the mob rule of social media, through the use of cameras, texts, videos, large screens, close-ups and a number of techniques more associated with film than theater,

“It feels like an epic movie, live,” André Sills, who plays Coriolanus, said in a phone interview from Stratford.

He has averaged two performances a week as Coriolanus since the middle of June, and repeats the role at Dartmouth. The intensity of the experience has been, he said, a “wild ride.”

The performances at the Hopkins Center are the last before Sills hangs up his hat (at least for now) as the brusque, rough-edged war hero who cannot feign enthusiasm for leading Rome, nor affection for its citizens, calling them curs, geese, hares and rabble. And those are the nicer epithets.

Sills said that his concern is, “How do you keep the audience interested in this guy, when some of his first lines are, I basically hate the common people? He’s not a Richard III, where Richard has time alone with the audience (at the beginning of the play) to woo them to his side. Coriolanus doesn’t have the time and he doesn’t care.”

Coriolanus tends to see the world in black and white, Sills said. He’s not timid or moderate in his speech or opinions, which is both his virtue and his vice.

“He’s forced into a square peg and he’s a circle. He knows it and is trying to go along with it. ... Seeing the human struggle, seeing this man trying to navigate this world, is something people are really identifying with now, ” Sills said.

The play asks, Sills said, “Whose side am I supposed to be on?”

Do we gravitate toward Coriolanus, even with his flaws? Do we agree with how the patrician senators wield power? Who has greater integrity, the generals or the politicians? Or are we emphatically with the citizens of Rome, the plebeians, whose emotions and loyalties flip-flop with regularity?

Mikaela Davies, the assistant director of Coriolanus, said in a phone interview from Edmonton, Alberta, where she is performing, that “the mob has been disenfranchised and they feel that the elite members of society are storing grain for themselves. They do go into this mob mentality ... but they are also people who have lost some of their rights. We can see that happening all over the world. Large groups of people make decisions with dangerous consequences, but those decisions come out of a real sense of need.”

Lepage’s production, she said, is notable for its scope. He is “able to take an idea and magnify it in a huge way. He’s able to illuminate those old, old texts.”

She points to a short scene between two soldiers, which Shakespeare used to convey crucial exposition.

The soldiers are minor characters, and there’s a risk the audience might skim over their dialogue. So Lepage had them exchange their dialogue as if they were texting each other. The back and forth texts are projected on large screens and read by the audience as if they were looking at the soldiers’ cell phones.

“In rehearsals I wasn’t sure how that was going to land, but the audience just loved it and I’ve seen it a number of times. It’s so clever. I’m realizing in retrospect that Robert is getting us to take in the information in a different way. It highlights this piece of information that the audience might otherwise miss,” Davies said.

The debates animating Coriolanus are eternal. When do leaders seize power, and how do they relinquish it, if they do? When do you sacrifice yourself to the greater good, a question Coriolanus must confront at play’s end?

The struggles and contradictory impulses of the characters, calculating one minute and noble the next, against a backdrop of supreme danger to the Republic, are the stuff of tragedy, but also the cycles of history.

Perhaps it’s those qualities that led T.S. Eliot, in a fit of contrariness, to declare in an essay that he thought Coriolanus was a greater work of art than Hamlet, and on the same level of achievement as Antony and Cleopatra.

Sills analyzes it this way:

“Once the crown is on your head the work never stops,” he said. “Now I am king, but have I done enough? The power isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”

The Hopkins Center will host four performances of Coriolanus in the Moore Theater, on Friday evening, Nov 30, and Saturday evening, Dec. 1, both at 8 p.m.; and two matinees, on Saturday, Dec. 1 and Sunday, Dec. 2, both at 2 p.m. There are also two school matinées on Nov. 29 and Nov. 30 at 10 a.m.

For tickets, information and a complete list of free-to-the-public discussions about the play and how it was brought to the stage, go to hop.dartmouth.edu/Online/stratford-festival-coriolanus or call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422.

Nicola Smith can be reached at mail@nicolasmith.org.