Sunday, September 10, 2006

Review of Coriolanus (Stratford Festival, 2006)

One of the wonderful things about Shakespeare productions is the new ways that directors find to interpret the motivations of the characters. Placing them in different historical contexts, highlighting certain speeches, creating characters in new and unexpected guises - all serve to make the plays anew. Even so-so productions can be worthwhile when they bring new ideas to the text.

Coriolanus is not produced very often. The only other time I have seen it was in a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company several years ago. The RSC didn't seem to have an interpretation, and muddied the production with bizarre and inexplicable historical contexts (part Samurai warriors, part US gunslingers). It's a shame it doesn't get produced more often, because it's a great play with exceptional language (like "hyperbolic acclamations"). Arguably, it suffers from having too much text, and could be helped by a little pruning of some overly-long speeches.

The current production at Stratford Ontario is enjoyable and compelling with first-rate acting. Where it suffers, I think, is in the way it copes with Colm Feore as its star. Colm Feore is a brilliant actor, but he may be too old and is certainly too powerful for an easy interpretation of Coriolanus. Coriolanus is a simple hero with simple values who honors those values to the limit. As the play opens, his values are clear: Rome and family. But he is surrounded by powerful and crafty people with their own agendas (his adversary on the battle field, his mother, Roman politicians, the Roman people) who throw him into a situation where he has to cope with new objectives, and he doesn't cope well. The play is about a good man who is destroyed when he attempts to enter politics, and its relevance reverberates today.

Colm Feore was the obvious choice to play Pierre Trudeau in a recent mini-series. Feore is charismatic, subtle, powerful. He doesn't do the simple hero. To cope with this, director Antoni Cimolino reinterpreted the play with a strong and crafty Coriolanus who is not manipulated by those around him. Martha Henry as Coriolanus' mother is not crafty or evil - she's an overbearing but loving mother. Coriolanus's adversary Aufidius, played by Graham Abbey in a style that seems more to be reading lines than creating a character, is similarly a follower rather than a manipulator. The Roman senators who make Coriolanus Consul in recognition of his battle successes are nice guys. All of this seems forced by the casting of the lead character rather than a credible interpretation, and it tears the guts out of the play. It also left me feeling that Feore hadn't presented a believable character in his Coriolanus - there was too much disjoint between the play and his representation.

The Tribunes, played by Don Carrier and Bernard Hopkins, are left as the sole evil-doers in the play, and they steal the show. There is a catty gay undercurrent to their plotting that makes it almost delicious. It's a shame that the great Martha Henry couldn't have been given rein to flesh out the manipulative mother and do the same. Likewise, Colm Feore would have made a dynamite Aufidius.


1 comment:

Steve said...

I have to disagree. Feore was brilliant and suited the play except perhaps in his age. I think the catty gay undercurrent is a bit of a stretch and I strongly disagree with your assessment of Coriolanus's mother, who frankly was portrayed as very much crafty and plotting. Her visit to Coriolanus at the gates of Rome is nothing less than a calculated play on his sympathies. Though admittedly she is not presented as responsible for his plight, in a sense this is touched upon with her blind promotion of his warrior tendencies.