Coriolanus- The Freewill Shakespeare Festival- Edmonton

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Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Jim Guedo

Playing in Hawrelak Park from June 23rd to July 19th

Coriolanus is notoriously known as one of the most difficult Jacobean plays to present to a contemporary audience. A late play from Shakespeare exploring themes such as honour, legacy, integrity, betrayal, and politics in Rome, the many hurdles it throws up before actors and directors alike leads to its unpopular reputation as one of the least performed plays of Shakespeare’s canon.

This undeserved “ye be wary” sign has cast the play into darkness, from which it has been slowly emerging in recent years with returns to the British stage in The Barbican’s production, which was also screened for cinema audiences around the world, and forays into popular film with a modern and particularly bloody interpretation starring Ralph Fiennes. However, the transition to the North American stage can present very different teething problems, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this production of Coriolanus was to pair with As You Like It to make up The Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s first season back on the Hawrelak Park stage.

A rare chance to witness this ostracized play, I was resolved to see the production come hell or high water and ended up taking two young actors and theatre lovers with me on a road trip from Red Deer. On the road, I was asked to elaborate on the aforementioned difficulties of the play as neither of the recently graduated drama students had been exposed to it. I digress to this narrative because of the dramatic change I saw in these two as audience members.

Now, very few audiences want to go to a play and get a history lesson; even fewer (if indeed any!) find it enjoyable to go to a play and not understand what’s going on because they missed the history lesson required beforehand, and must resort to skimming through the director’s notes frantically before the lights go down. This is a major problem with Coriolanus. Set in Rome, the world of our eponymous hero has a very different set of moral values than  we are accustomed to and therefore our ability to empathise with his struggle to maintain honour as a man and a warrior of Rome is disadvantaged from the get go.

In plays like Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar and Antony & Cleopatra, Shakespeare shows his deep understanding of the values of this society; in the Golden Age of Rome, the hub of a global empire, teetering between the democratic and republican, the policies of the senate correlated directly with military affairs and a delicate balance of power had to be maintained in a complex, often conspiratorial, hierarchical pyramid. The struggle of “The People”, appearing in Shakespeare’s play as a sort of Greek chorus, is especially difficult to interpret as they toss on the waves of the puffed-up politicos and war-wounded heroes questing for power, and/or honour (you decide).

Much of our car journey was spent discussing the challenges of approaching this world as an actor or director, the pressures of presenting that work before a contemporary audience, and why it’s such a bold and commendable choice to do so.

The first hurdle, we posited, is surely the language. Why else do audiences shirk from seeing Shakespeare other than the greatly relied upon “I don’t understand what they’re saying”? The second, battle sequences. How does a director broach the vital physical confrontations of Coriolanus and his enemies convincingly without employing a veritable army of actors to play them out to their fullest? After all, it is in the fires of battle that Coriolanus forges his character and their significance to the action of the play is inescapable. And thirdly, Rome herself; a deeply intrinsic, highly sophisticated ancient civilisation that exists for many of us only in dusty, neglected books of Senecan philosophy, and unlearned Latin mantras (insert toga party joke here). Rome, aside from the olive oil and wine of course, is a world and a concept so foreign to us nowadays that it’s difficult even to draw a modern comparison through which we can begin to understand its cogs.

We walked under the tent at Hawrelak Park and took our seats amongst the other audience members, a near full house of people who’s knowledge of the play I can only guestimate. This group of theatregoers embarked together on a formidable journey where their personal introspective experience of the story merged with the collective; we became an extension of the Roman mob, soldiers, enemy forces, and were privy to the intimate hallway whispers of the senators, bringing us right into the heart of the action.

Jim Guedo’s direction of this production showed bravery beyond my expectation, and above all trust in his actors and his audience. Caius Martius, newly named Coriolanus for his efforts in battle (played aptly by John Ullyatt who doubles as Monsieur Le Beau in As You Like It), returns to Rome with the long, confident strides of a victor returning to give homage to his city. We watched him wince as he was brought out of his war-time comfort zone and offered up as a political consul for the people of Rome, for whom he has nothing but contempt. We saw his pride wane as his fiery Roman mother, played by a vehemently maternal Belinda Cornish, encouraged him to enter the corrupt milieu of Roman politician, pushing him to forsake his military office, the while praising his injuries as valiant personal offerings to Rome. We also were witness to his downfall as his disgust with the common people of Rome rose to a fever pitch, exploding with vile accusations and climaxing to his banishment from Rome.

True to the Greek-chorus style of Shakespeare’s mob, The People of Rome are volatile, changeable, and easily manipulated by libellous slander strategies put in motion by jealous “suit types”, tribunes Sicinius (Farren Timoteo) and Brutus (Ryan Parker). The ensemble fluidly transitions from Roman mob to Volscan soldiers and they invite the audience to engage with them in order to beef up their numbers, so that together we all provide the backdrop against which Caius Coriolanus is starkly silhouetted. He looks to us, the audience, for support as his highly structured world begins to crumble around him, but does he see us or the vindictive Roman mob?

It is at this point in the plot when the audience is truly let in to the complex and seemingly intolerant nature of Coriolanus- his is a very difficult viewpoint for us to accept. Ullyatt works painstaking and without prejudice  through his characters journey from warrior by trade to hero by recognition to un-willing political figure to repudiated traitor. Although this is an arduous journey for any performer, Ullyat, under the deft direction of Gould and with the support of his fellow cast members, brings to light a personal struggle with the nature of integrity that a North American audience can relate to and explore within their own realms.

If nothing else, we begin to recognise the difficulties faced by anyone in the public eye and how the nature of truth and self-respect can become skewed and warped when we are pressured to live up to popular expectations under the cultural microscope.

To come back to my two young friends; it was an illuminating experience for them to experience a Shakespearean work with which they were not already familiar. This allowed them to be swept away with the story, rather than waiting for their favourite expected bits, and revealed to them a whole new aspect to Shakespeare’s writing as a savvy storyteller exploring the dawn of democracy, and a savant of what has or hasn’t changed from Ancient Rome to Elizabethan England to present day governmental and societal flux. After all, at the time when this play premiered, King James had just succeeded Queen Elizabeth’s monumental reign and was constantly under the glare of the highly fickle public eye in an imperial country reliant on a delicate balance of power between monarchy, parliament, aristocracy and military puissance(s). Despite this difficult ancient setting, Shakespeare is careful to tell the story through the relationships between people, how our circumstances influence our actions and in turn the nature of those relationships.

The language was anything but a barrier; it was rather the only way that could possibly befit the situation of our characters, the most honest and true way for them to tell us their story. The fight scenes were innovative and highly stylized, allowing our imaginations to fill the battalions of Romans and Volscans. And Rome- She was glorious, gaudy, gossip-riddled and thoroughly unfettered in her relevance to present day society.

On this occasion, two young students at an underperformed Shakespearean play surrounded by other captive audience members, from all walks of life no doubt, came away with a deeper passion and greater understanding of theatre, which delighted this writer to no end. I often hear audiences remarking “Who knew a 400 and some year old play could present such modern issues”, and I could go on at length about the electric conversations we volleyed back and forth apropos military politics mirrored by the play, but that would be both subjective and indulgent.

I’m sure they would agree it was a transformative and eye-opening experience that will motivate them on their journeys as actors and audience members to push themselves past their comfort zones and into many bounteous new experiences in theatre. For what is theatre if not an opportunity to expose ourselves to and learn from the stories of different people from around the globe, from different times, who have colourful stories to delight and encourage us to reflect on the world we all share.

A hearty kudos to everyone at the Freewill Festival for such a brave, visceral, engaging offering- truly a rare treat for audiences.

Coriolanus and As You Like It play in tandem at The Freewill Shakespeare Festival in Hawrelak Park from June 23rd to July 19th. Tickets can be purchased online at www.freewillshakespeare.com or on the door.

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