We’re going to skip the usual apologies for not being here writing about things. I was busy with the book. I’ve been writing plenty (…ish). But right now, I’m in a funny little limbo space which involves waiting for my copy editor to get back in touch with me (and maybe finalize a publication date…no I’m not silently freaking out about this, why in the world would anyone think that…?), and I need stimulation. Thus, here we are.
The theme with theatre so far this season (so…one piece that I’ll get to in a bit plus what I saw this summer) can be summed up as follows:
Why are we putting this show on?
This question applies less to new works and more to restaging of classical pieces – and coincidentally was inspired by what I saw this summer at Epidauros.
Honestly, after the undeniable success of Aris Biniaris’ direction of Prometheus Bound in bringing Aeschylus’ text unabashedly into the 21st century, injecting it with a timeliness and urgency that are often absent in productions of classical Greek texts, my expectations were high. Alas, the show we saw this year was Sophocles’ Ajax, and if this summer’s experience taught me anything it is “Why the fuck is anyone producing this show?”
Truly, I ask you who are reading this, a piece that centers around two men having what essentially amounts to a dick-measuring contest over who gets another warrior’s [Achilles’] armor has what, exactly, to say about our contemporary existence? Of course, the answer to that question may be some rather nuanced or complex insight into our own relationships with notions of pride, glory, militarism, etc., but given that the overall aesthetic of this piece seemed to jump around between tragedy, comedy, and – during one bizarre sequence – modern dance piece that vaguely evoked German Expressionist cinema à la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, without any discernable reason, my only take away of the whole experience was “We did this because it was on the repertoire rotation. Yay?”
(And yes, now that I don’t have to worry about maintaining an air of critical impartiality, the opinions come out).
This brings us to tonight’s production commentary:
William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, mise en scène de François Orsoni, Théâtre de la Bastille, September 13, 2022
Before I get to this, I need to acknowledge how odd this season at the Bastille is going to be. This is not only due to Jean-Marie Hordé’s retirement after 32 years as artistic director, but also to the fact that, administratively, the theatre is technically in transition mode. Up until now, it has officially been classified as independent (so, neither public nor private). While it does receive some subsidies from the City, as well as from other public and private organizations, for a good part of its history as a theatre, it existed in a state of financial precarity, with Hordé’s programming choices and directorial approach being part of the reason why it reached some state of financial stability at all.
(As an aside, this is all very brief, I know, but we don’t have time to get into the nitty-gritty of it here).
Following Hordé’s retirement, the theatre will be reclassed as a public theatre (though which classification it will receive remains unknown), joining the country’s larger network of such theatres / cultural spaces, as well as becoming eligible for more substantial State and/or Regional and Departmental funding (though given the direction public funding for basically anything has been going these last 20+ years, it remains to be seen how much that will actually change concretely). Yet, what this also means is the risk of a fundamental change in the theatre’s identity in terms of productions, namely: will a space known for being both daring/innovative and, at times, literary (these may sound like polar opposites, but I assure you, they don’t need to be) fall victim to the “exchangism” and stagnancy that has plagued other public theatre houses? At this point, who knows (a lot of this will largely depend on who the Ministry ultimately selects to take over the position – as in, will they actually pick someone with a truly daring vision and not just a surface-level air of one which will sooner or later betray an alliance with the status quo rather than an active questioning and destabilizing of it). For now, the 2022/2023 season is the last one Hordé completely designed, so I’ve made it a point to see practically everything.
But for the love of god, why in the world did we have to start with Coriolanus?
Much like with Ajax, this production, if nothing else, answered the question as to why no one really produces Coriolanus anymore. Come to think of it, I don’t think I had ever read it in any of my theatre classes prior to seeing it. A quick google search will reveal that one of the many roadblocks contemporary audiences have with this piece is how blatantly undemocratic (and, yeah, I’ll go there, fascistic) it is – though this is a complaint that stretches back to the nineteenth century as well. The titular character, despite being the center of the tragedy, is, to put it mildly, an unapologetically vain asshole. He goes off to war to fight the Volsci and, after claiming victory for Rome, is elected consul but hates it in part because he has to play the role of a politician who must endear himself to the common people (though, as it is mentioned several times, his war wounds should be proof enough of the love he has for his country), and, unfortunately, Coriolanus openly despises the common people.
By the way, these same common people are also starving due to lack of bread, but I digress…
Anyway, the long and short of it goes like this: Coriolanus becomes consul – Coriolanus is an asshole – tribunal takes advantage of this – tribunal manipulates the people (because of course, they are easy to twist about like that) into turning against Coriolanus – Coriolanus is banished – Coriolanus pledges loyalty to his former enemy and vows to help him attack Rome – Coriolanus’s mother convinces him not to attack and to draft a peace treaty – Coriolanus realizes he’s been an idiot, agrees to peace, then gets stabbed by his enemy because of his betrayal and because his enemy realizes that Coriolanus actually has the potential to gain people’s respect after all.
Also, the people are still starving in the end, but whatever. Some plot threads don’t need resolving, I suppose.
Granted, Shakespeare did write this play during a time of great duress in England. Queen Elizabeth I had just died (well…uncanny), James I had just come into power, the theatres reopening after two years of closure following a plague (also uncanny), and a series of popular uprisings in the Midlands following the enacting of new enclosure laws and privatization of access to lands that – surprise – led to a rise in hunger amongst the peasantry.
Again, the people are starving.
In his director’s note, Orsoni acknowledges the current as well as historical problematics around staging this piece (notably, how fascists used it to further their own agenda in the late 1930s), while stating that the key for him is striking the balance between Coriolanus and the tribunal that ultimately works to oust him from Roman society. The result is a piece that gives you no one really to root for, except, maybe, “the people”, this nebulous mass whose existence Shakespeare’s text not only questions the legitimacy of, but also reduces down to the status of object used to further the interests of others.
At the same time, this particular staging did play a bit with aesthetic convention when it came to telegraphing the social/class status of its characters. Coriolanus, for instance, wears an adidas track suit – zipped up only halfway – and slides (at one point with socks) for the majority of the piece, and speaks with a certain affected gruffness that is otherwise often used in performance to designate someone on the lower and/or working-class end of the socioeconomic ladder. In other words, his way of being on the stage in all its “boorish-ness” goes against the codified image associated with someone of his station. A career military man (as he is) may be gruff and lack in some finesse, but not necessarily to this extent.
In contrast, the tribunal especially – and to a certain degree the people as well – speak more clearly, if not with an affected refinement in their speech, then with no discernable additional affectation to their voices that would immediately place them on a particular rung on the socioeconomic ladder. Yet, where one does get a sense of social stratification is in the question of space: Coriolanus essentially occupies the stage – as well as has the capacity to jump down to the space immediately in front of the stage in a sort of crossing of boundaries – while the tribunal + the people are (with little exception) relegated to the lower space in front of the stage (and seated on chairs for the most part). The spatial divide only further enhances the dilemma already present in the performances: those who are “lower” are, after all, seeking to depose a leader who openly despises them, yet they also do so while exploiting a supposed weakness that largely informs the leader’s hatred in the first place.
The Roman Republic, in other words, loses its legitimacy precisely because that which allows for its existence – the will and voices of the voting citizenry – is presented as unreliable because of how it is used by others with more influence.
Now, I do not want to go so far as to say that this is the ethos of this specific staging because I do not believe it is. There is a reason, I think, why the plebians are played more “nobly”, so to speak, than the patricians. But it does speak to a quandary within the text itself that, I believe, makes it incredibly difficult to translate the commentary that I think Orsoni was trying to develop (a critique on power, ambition, selfishness, and what gets lost in the struggle for influence). And again, I find myself wondering why this piece in particular was the Shakespeare piece that had to be adapted, other than the circumstantial parallels (one of them purely coincidental) between the time of its writing and ours.
At the same time, it is getting incredibly late, and I have an early workout in the morning.
Until the next