Bard on the Beach’s Coriolanus

Coriolanus, Bard on the Beach’s final play of its 30th anniversary season, opened to a standing ovation over the weekend. Coriolanus is a difficult, controversial and lesser-known Shakespearean work, yet in the formidable directorial hands of Dean Paul Gibson, this production has been re-awakened with vigor and relevance.  

This is the first time that Coriolanus has been staged in Bard’s 30-year history. The inherent challenges presented by the plot, dialogue and its eponymous protagonist reveals itself in this gender-flipped rendition.

Female leads tackle masculine stereotypes and the mother/daughter relationship is tested. Gibson’s version is action-packed, skewering long, drawn-out speeches with urgency and purpose, yet much of the morality in the play remains convoluted and the setting, neither classical roman nor futuristic, feels more Hunger Games than Julius Caesar.

Bard on the Beach’s Coriolanus

Barbara Clayden’s costumes in muted shades of gray, ivy and maroon contrast the strict structure of military attire with the sloppy ragbag of the common people.

The always-astute Pam Johnson has designed a minimalist, hard-edged set that relies heavily on technology to fully immerse audiences. Jamie Nesbitt’s vast, evolving projections scream chaos and ruin. Alessandro Juliani’s heart-throbbing, discordant soundscape combined with Alan Brodie’s provocative lighting are harbingers of doom.

Lisa Stevens and Robinson Wilson have choreographed some of the bloodiest battle scenes ever to appear on a Bard stage, making them simultaneously hypnotic and brutal.

Praneet Akilla, Colleen Wheeler, Craig Erickson
[Praneet Akilla, Colleen Wheeler, Craig Erickson]

Under the intimate canopy of the Douglas Campbell Theatre, Coriolanus’ quasi-dystopian future unfolds. The squalid masses (plebeians), represented by tribunes, rail against the ruling classes (patricians) but they have mixed feelings towards the mighty general Caius Martius.

Although Martius has defended Rome numerous times from marauding Volscians, she has fierce contempt for the plebeians. She does not trust their fickle, unpredictable ways nor does she feel they deserve to have any influence in the affairs of the Senate as they’ve never participated in military conquests.

Following the violent and bloody capture of Corioles, Martius is honoured with the surname Coriolanus. Her domineering and ambitious mother, Volumnia, urges her to seek political office, despite her stubborn disposition and elitist bias. Though brave and fearsome on the battlefield, she cannot transition to a life of public service that hinges on public opinion and public relations.

Bard on the Beach’s Coriolanus

In a way, she’s like another of Shakespeare’s tragic heroines, Cordelia (King Lear). She cannot bring herself to pander or flatter, confident in her personal merit. Thus, she brings about her own downfall when two smarmy tribunes rile the Romans to reject and exile her.

Aghast that her bravery and honour is rewarded in this way, Coriolanus unites with the Volsces leader, Tullus Aufidius, to mount an attack against the country that banished her.

Her friends, the silver-tongued Menenius (Shawn Macdonald), rational Cominius (Dalal Badr) and even her devoted husband (Anthony Santiago) are unsuccessful at pleading with Coriolanus to stop the invasion. Only her indomitable mother is able to break her resolve but in doing so, Coriolanus predicts that the survival of Rome will mean the end of hers.

Moya O’Connell, Praneet Akilla, Dalal Badr
[Moya O’Connell, Praneet Akilla, Dalal Badr]

The play is a brilliant study of how the contradictory nature of politics can bring down an honourable, fearless, but ultimately tragic heroine. Morality and politics rarely, if ever, intersect.

A successful politician is usually not the one who is most accomplished or upholds noble beliefs, but the one who can strategize, manipulate and flatter the general public. As the smooth-talking demagogues, Craig Erickson and Praneet Akilla effortlessly exude these qualities as they prance about in perfectly pressed suits and righteous swagger.

More interested in self-preservation than tribune duties, Erickson’s cool demeanour calms the masses while Akilla’s cooing tones departs a disingenuous “I feel you” sentiment.

Colleen Wheeler, Moya O’Connell
[Colleen Wheeler, Moya O’Connell]

Colleen Wheeler is the optimal choice as Volumnia. Coiffed in a silver bob and sleek attire she cuts quite the fierce, imposing maternal figure. Boldly declaring she is proud of her daughter’s scars, her ambition and bloodlust is overshadowed only to Lady Macbeth.

Wheeler’s intense portrayal of this character seals the believability of Coriolanus herself. Headstrong, controlling and defiant, Moya O’Connell wears her character with a passion I have never seen before.

Same is true of Marci T. House’s Tullus Aufidius. She makes for a powerful, menacing nemesis to Coriolanus. These two actors have confidently taken on traditionally masculine and brutish personas with convincing authenticity. Embracing these roles speaks volumes about their limitless capacity to diversify as well as Gibson’s deific vision to forge Bard headlong into contemporary times. 

The buzz surrounding this re-imagined production was immense. As of opening night, all regularly scheduled shows are already sold out. This prompted Bard to add seven more performances, extending the last run until September 21. If you manage to score tickets, check your squeamishness at the door — there is plenty of gore.

Photos by Tim Matheson.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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