“Coriolanus” by the Freewill Players

Take him up.
Help, three o’th’chiefest soldiers. I’ll be one.
Beat thou the drum that it speak mournfully;
Trail you steel pikes. Though in this city he
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.
Assist.

This won’t be a typical review. Mark Morris in the Edmonton Journal has already done a fine and balanced review of Freewill Players’ Coriolanus.

For the past few years, even with Shakespeare’s irredeemable script of Taming of the Shrew, I have been consistently impressed by the Freewill productions when I’ve not been simply blown away. Despite that record, I had low expectations of their Coriolanus. Ralph Feines’ film remains burned into my memory as a tough act to follow. I knew Freewill would need to cut for time and personnel. And Coriolanus is a plot that can be hard to follow, even for those familar with Roman Republican history. Coriolanus, the character, is alternately praised and vilified by his own people, the Romans, and by his enemies, the Volsci. Banished by Rome he joins the Volsci to have revenge on Rome, only to betray Volscian ambition to clutch at an impossible peace.

I expected a game try and limited success from Freewill’s roughly two hour time limit and a little more than dozen actors doing repertory with As You Like It.

You blew me away again, Freewill!

And the standing ovation last night, despite a few fumbled lines, was more than deserved.

A Word About the Setting

For those who don’t know Edmonton and the setting of the Freewill Shakespeare Festival, a description:

The centre of Edmonton, a metropolis of over a million people, is a park. Don’t imagine New York’s Central Park. Edmonton’s central park is over twenty times the size of New York’s. Imagine wilderness for kilometres. Imagine deer, moose, or even a bear calmly wandering past Downtown. Imagine walking out of wilderness onto a golf course. Then an Arcadian landscape of ponds, fountains, cropped meadows, more wilderness, bike paths, foot paths, Chinese gardens, food forests, amphitheatres, Fur Trade Era palisaded forts, playgrounds, a small Gnome in his home, swimming pools, baseball fields . . . all with a river running through it, all a short walk from the homes and workplaces of a bustling metropolis.

Now imagine sitting in a comfy chair under a giant white circus tent with no walls. Squirrels dart past your feet. Birds are singing. People are smiling and laughing. You look past the stage and see trees, meadows, ponds and fountains. In the distance the wooded river bank rises to meet the sunset sky. This evening smoke from distant northern forest fires enhances the atmospheric perspective, transforming the view into the distant background vista of a painting by Poussin. A few days ago that bear I mentioned ambled nearby, stirring curiosity rather than worry.

This Arcadian landscape is what you pass through on the way to see Shakespeare. The experience is more akin to approaching a provincial performance of the Kings Men in 1598 than it is to a potentially stuffy night at the Theatre in the 21st Century.

And precisely this feeling of being at a provincial performance is one thing that blew me away about Freewill’s Coriolanus: it felt like a carefully abbreviated staging, a site-specific version, such as many of Shakespeare’s plays went through in the provinces and the Plague Years. There was an authenticity to the cutting, and in one particular case, a brilliant artistry in the drastic shortening of a speech.

The Review-like bits

The Plebs are suitably loud and chaotic, Belinda Cornish’s Volumnia is deliciously Patrician and incestuous, John Ullyat’s Coriolanus is stoic in battle and painfully and creepily devoted to his mother, and Robert Benz is steady as Menenius. The conniving Tribunes played by Farren Timoteo and Ryan Parker are like despicable peas in a pod, as they should be. Performances are across the board good or great. Sound design is brilliant, costumes are comfortably mid-century fascist with a touch of street gang, and the set is a marvellously minimalist two-story arcade that is more than fully utilized by the cast..

And Ullyat absolutely nailed Coriolanus’ banishment speech “There is a world elsewhere!” at the end of Act III where Freewill nicely places the intermission.

What shone for me as much as anything, but in a subtle way, was the cutting of the text. Much of the cutting was from speeches, not of speeches or scenes. Speeches are tightened for time, certainly with a sacrifice of beauty and perhaps of sense at times, but in at least one case, that of the final speech of Aufidius, the final words of the play, the cut gives a profound and startlingly modern twist to the meaning of the play.

Spoiler Alert!

The epigraph above is Aufidius’ last speech as Shakespeare had the play end. With the death of Coriolanus, Aufidius seems to indicate, the war is ended, as though it all was driven by Coriolanus and his narcissistic treason.

Here’s how Freewill ends the play (stage directions as I imagine them):

Auf.
Take him up.
[The Volscian Soldiers don’t move.]
Assist!
[Exeunt Volscian Soldiers]
[Aufidius slumps, aware that treason is now his twice over, as it was for Coriolanus, but Coriolanus has saved both cities, while Aufidius has betrayed them both for nothing]
[Exit]

Coriolanus is playing at the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 18, 2015.

Go see it.

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3 comments on ““Coriolanus” by the Freewill Players

  1. […] John Richardson gives the Freewill Players’ Coriolanus a rave review. […]

  2. […] Freewill Shakespeare Festival continues this week. John had some great thoughts on the production […]

  3. […] went to As You Like It Tuesday night (July 7), a week after seeing Freewill’s Coriolanus.  The austere Roman arcade of that story is transformed into a vine-covered bower.  Again the […]

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