If the French version of Lepage's acclaimed Stratford production echoes the recent controversies over SLAV and Kanata, those parallels are being drawn after the fact, says actor Anne-Marie Cadieux.
Thanks to the furor over SLAV and Kanata, last year might have been written off as an annus horribilis for Robert Lepage. Luckily, his Stratford Festival debut also made it the year of his Coriolanus mirabilis.
Critics and the public were mostly ecstatic about Lepage’s modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s lean, mean, battle-hardened Roman tragedy, which rolled out legions of high-tech special effects, as well as powerhouse performances from a cast led by André Sills in the title role and Lucy Peacock as his imperious mother Volumnia.
Montrealers could be forgiven for thinking we’re getting second-tier goods when Coriolan, as it has been renamed, comes to Théâtre du Nouveau Monde next week with an entirely different cast. In significant ways, though, we’re getting a pristine original.
For one thing, this francophone production sees Lepage going back to the Michel Garneau translation he used when he first created his cinema-inflected Coriolanus in France in 1992. (It went on to tour Europe, Canada — including Montreal — and Japan.) For another, it’s got Anne-Marie Cadieux returning to play Volumnia — a role she first played to wild acclaim in that 1990s production.
Cadieux has been a frequent Lepage collaborator, beginning with a 1990 Romeo and Juliet, in which she played Lady Capulet, then the Shakespeare trilogy of which Coriolanus was a part (she also played island monster Caliban in The Tempest and various parts in Macbeth during the same tour), through to The Seven Streams of the River Ota, and movies like Nô and Le Confessionnal.
Even at their most dazzling, the much-evolved technological aspects of the show (including infrared mapping, seamlessly combining projections with actors) are unlikely to eclipse the performances, least of all the one from Cadieux. When she played the middle-aged Volumnia in her 20s, she was praised for her risk-taking, larger-than-life command of the role. Now that she’s closer to the age of the fearsome matriarch who, almost literally, loves her son to bits, she’s likely to loom even larger in the play. For in many ways, Volumnia proves to be more of a nemesis to Coriolanus than even his obsessively brooded-upon military foe Aufidius.
Speaking to the Montreal Gazette in a TNM dressing room, Cadieux says: “One of the things that makes the play so rich is that, as well as being political, there’s this psychoanalytical study of the relationship between a mother and son. Volumnia doesn’t have a husband — she acts almost as Coriolanus’s wife. One of her first lines is, ‘If my son were my husband … .’ She’s a mother, but she’s a mother who devours him. He will do everything for her until, in the end, he’s not a warrior anymore. He becomes a little boy.”
Playing Coriolanus to Cadieux’s Volumnia (and joining her for this dressing-room chat) is Alexandre Goyette, whose performance in the gritty, Montreal-set movie King Dave (adapted from his own play) surely prepared him for this muscular study of rampaging masculinity.
Asked whether he studied military figures as part of his preparations to play Shakespeare’s most formidable war machine, Goyette says that he hadn’t, but that he drew on research he had conducted while playing a jet pilot for an episode of the francophone version of the television series In Treatment.
“I talked with a real-life pilot and asked him, ‘OK, if you learned that where your bombs hit, there were children …’ I didn’t have time to finish my sentence. He said: ‘That’s not my mistake. I do my job. I do what needs to be done.’
“There is something about Coriolanus in that. When he gets banished, there’s a minute or so when he doesn’t talk. Why? Because he’s a military man. He’s already in survival mode, planning the next move. That’s the way he was taught to go to war; that’s what he loves. When he gets in the political world, he doesn’t have any fun. The only time we see him being happy is when he learns that Rome is going back to war against Aufidius. He’s like, ‘Yeah, man!’ ”
If this image of a single-minded warrior makes Coriolanus seem like one of Shakespeare’s least complex characters, Cadieux and Goyette agree that it’s his behaviour during peacetime that really gives him dramatic colour.
“It’s a very multi-level play about the mechanics of democracy,” says Cadieux. “Coriolanus is an ambiguous hero. Sometimes he can be viewed as tyrannical and arrogant, but he never lies, so he has problems going into the political arena. As a spectator, you’re always asking: Is he right or not? Is he a fascist or just a valiant warrior?”
Or, as Goyette succinctly puts it: “In one line, you think, ‘You know, he’s right,’ then in the next you think, ‘He’s an asshole.’ ”
As for which side Lepage comes down on, Goyette and Cadieux seem to be slightly less in accord.
“Actually, what I think is that he’s really neutral towards him,” says Goyette, to which Cadieux responds with a dubious “We-e-ell …”
“That’s my impression, anyway,” Goyette continues, “but I know what you mean. I don’t know. To me it’s like, you decide.”
He thinks about it more before adding: “You should ask Robert.”
Which would be an ideal way to settle the issue, were it not for the fact that Lepage seems to have taken a strategic moratorium on talking to the media. (At the time of writing, he had just released an open letter addressing the SLAV controversy.) Which brings us to the elephant in the room — one that’s all the more glaring given the play is largely about a man who falls afoul of public opinion because he can’t, or won’t, say the right thing at the right time.
Not surprisingly, Cadieux and Goyette decline to talk on Lepage’s behalf, but as to whether the production makes explicit reference to the controversies — as Lepage has done in Kanata — Cadieux says: “I don’t think so. You can draw parallels, maybe. For instance, the fact that Coriolanus has been banished by the people. But the production was created in Stratford before that whole controversy. Maybe it’s possible for audiences to make links after the fact.”
As for the other elephant in the room — the one that seems to loom large in most productions of Shakespeare’s overtly political plays these days — Cadieux heads that off at the pass, too.
“Coriolanus isn’t like Trump. He’s a real warrior; he’s smarter. I don’t think the analogy holds. Trump pretends he loves the people, but he lies to them. Coriolanus never lies — he’s not able to. He won’t use a mask to the people. He’ll tell them to their face: ‘I hate you.’ ”
AT A GLANCE
Coriolan is presented from Tuesday, Jan. 15 to Saturday, Feb. 16 at Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, 84 Ste-Catherine St. W. Tickets cost $35 to $85. Call 514-866-8668 or see tnm.qc.ca.
Robert Lepage’s Stratford Festival production of Coriolanus has been filmed for screenings in cinemas. It will première March 23 in Cineplex theatres across Canada; see cineplex.com for more details.