Robert Lepage’s latest production uses technological spectacle to decipher one of Shakespeare’s most challenging tragedies.
I recently had the chance to see The Stratford Festival and Ex Machina’s Coriolanus at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center. The production was directed by Robert Lepage, the prolific French-Canadian whose directorial scope ranges from monologues to concert tours, from Vegas spectacles to Wagner at the Met. I first encountered Lepage’s work several decades ago, when I saw his one-man show Needles and Opium. I was dazzled by his theatricality and inventiveness, transforming the stage through projection, shadow, and narrative audacity, and I’ve followed his work ever since.
On the other hand, I wasn’t at all familiar with Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s less-produced plays, the tale of a Roman war hero struggling to reconcile his pride and anger with the demands of a fickle public. The play has clear corollaries to contemporary politics, and Lepage’s production is set in an anachronistic world combining the ancient and the digital, where characters debate publicly on talk radio, get their news from television, and gossip via text message.
The play was presented inside a high-tech black box that sat on the Hopkins Center stage. As the audience entered the theater, the box revealed a large statuary bust of the title character sitting before an art-museum backdrop. When the play began, the bust came to life via projection mapping, and Coriolanus delivered a short monologue. I saw this one coming – the effect is a fixture of Disney’s Haunted Mansion – but heard some gasps from the audience around me. The digital stagecraft was just getting started….
The theater-within-a-theater was narrow, perhaps only 10 feet deep, sandwiched between both front and rear projections. Through these, the space transformed into dozens of beautifully-rendered settings: a radio station, a Roman bath, a luxurious restaurant, a government office. In a favorite moment of mine, a group of characters in a bar watched news of the hero’s return on television sets. In a gust of wind, the bar disappeared, and the characters were seamlessly transported to a tarmac to greet the hero as he emerged from a plane.
One of the most dramatic sequences, a meeting at the Roman Forum in which Coriolanus argues himself to implosion, used the projections to dizzying effect. A collage of camera feeds filled the background with multiple views of the actors, creating a kaleidoscope which both amplified the on-screen crowds and pushed the theme of media saturation to disorienting extremes.
For me, though, the production’s most innovative technique was a mechanical system that quite literally framed the action on stage. Like window blinds, giant panels slid onto the proscenium from the top, bottom, left, and right, creating rectangles that precisely masked the stage to focus on the action at hand. The effect was distinctly cinematic; at the climax of several scenes, the panels converged to ‘zoom in’ on actors. At other times, they revealed physical sets that emerged from the wings, like a camera panning across a set. And on occasion, the actors appeared on both sides of the frame, as it opened and closed to represent doors and windows in perfect synchronization with projected elements.
This tight matching of the physical and digital was put to strong effect in the opening scene of the production’s second act, as Coriolanus fled Rome in a full-sized car shoehorned onto the narrow stage. As the hero drove away, we followed him through rainstorms, forests, and finally into desolate urban ruins; projections on the vehicle’s surface meticulously reflected the backdrop projections, immersing the audience with a visceral sense of motion.
I later learned that these digital juxtapositions were in fact ‘live,’ using IR cameras to precisely track the actors’ motion and align the projections around them. A late scene in which a character sat on a windowsill, his leg draped down the front of a building, was a case in point: the facade projection was precisely masked to avoid hitting the actor’s leg, an effect I wouldn’t have noticed save for a slight stutter in the projection.
I’d seen this technique used in Lepage’s epic Ka, a Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil martial arts spectacle. In fact, a number of the theatrical tricks here were repeats from the director’s repertoire. Shadow puppetry on the side of an army tent brought to mind a low-tech overhead projector effect from Needles and Opium, more than two decades ago. Another sequence, in which a young boy played out the story of Coriolanus’ war victories using miniature cameras attached to action figures, was chillingly effective, but I’d seen this used just a few years earlier in Lepage’s autobiographical monologue 887. That’s not to say that the director’s repertoire is limited; rather, it’s impressive that these techniques, which at first seem so specific, can be leveraged to tell all kinds of stories.
So does the technology enhance or distract from the play? It’s a question often asked around Lepage’s productions, notably his enormous, electromechanical Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. Though lately this question seems the least of the director’s problems.
The audience around me, an older college-town crowd, could be heard grumbling about the production’s slickness during intermission, and occasionally laughing at the extravagant excesses of the production. I expect that they wanted less spectacle and more emphasis on Shakespeare’s text.
As I was unfamiliar with the play itself, I didn’t mind the theatricality; it’s a tough play with an unsympathetic lead, and its media metaphors helped me understand the politics and often challenging language. And while the emphasis on stagecraft and technology might be deemed impersonal, a few of the actors, particularly Lucy Peacock as the hero’s mother and Tom McCamus as his advisor, really broke through the mechanics of the production, creating indelible characters that wavered between heroism and villainy.
Lepage’s infinitely transformable black-box may represent the future of theater, as new digital technologies help designers seemingly break the boundaries of space and time. But I’d place it on a continuum stretching back to the shadow puppets Lepage so often deploys; another chapter in the history of dramatic spectacle, each using the technology of its time to tell stories and enchant audiences.
All photography by David Hou.