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Skipping Stones Takes on Coriolanus| Shakespeare in Toronto

By November 1, 2017 No Comments

This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. It’s Tori here with the latest in Shakespeare news from Toronto. Starting tonight Skipping Stones Theatre will debut their first Toronto show with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, running from November 1- 4. I had the opportunity to chat with the director, Sean O’Brien and a few of the actors to discuss the production.

Tori: This is your first Toronto production, tell us a little about your philosophy and what we can expect from Skipping Stones?
Sean O’Brien: Skipping Stones Theatre inadvertently became an artist team motivated to pursue scripts in which we are able to discuss causes of, and hindrances to, our mental health. Though Coriolanus does not directly address topics such as depression or anxiety, personally, I can see nationalism as a disease, causing wealthy countries to suffer from the toxic effects of putting borders before people. Social forces can shape, and often crush, individuals. The moment of disillusionment – realizing you can’t love your country and hate its people – is the crux of the whole play.

T: You claim that the themes of the play “are more relevant to people living in modern Canada in any of [Shakespeare’s] monarchical histories,” could you explain what you mean?

S: Most of Shakespeare’s political plays focus on the English monarchs, which is perfectly fitting as that is the world he lived in. With his Roman tragedies, however, you watch the rise and fall of a republic, where the “people,” to some extent or other, have a voice in politics. For example, Julius Caesar hinges on assassinating a dictator to retain the power of the people. Coriolanus exists in a mythical version of Rome where the kings have been expelled within living memory; the play opens with the people acquiring more power through forcing the election of representatives – their tribunes. The entire social order is divided between an elite, that puts its own interests first, and the poor majority, that often prove fickle and easy to manipulate. Their conflict drives the play’s action, and it’s a conflict that we can see acutely playing out today in the popular movements that led to the Brexit referendum in Shakespeare’s homeland, or the election of Trump in the New World. Shakespeare’s world was no republic, and certainly no democracy, but he still managed to capture the core tensions that he identified in Rome thousands of years ago, and would continue to haunt our system hundreds of years later.

T: Why did you decide to set the play during World War One? What connections do you make between Shakespeare’s Roman setting, WWI, and the present?

S: The World War 1 setting was chosen through a series of conversations we had about our difficulty in understanding the level of blind nationalism demonstrated in the play. As neighbours to America, and with such close ties to Britain, Canada exhibits a growing push-back against that type of fervent nationalism, even while modern propaganda is distributed more thoroughly than ever. Superficial research led us to believe that the Canadians serving in the Great War seemed completely onboard with fighting – and dying – in a war for the British Empire. I thought, “that can’t possibly be true,” which lead us to discover significantly more about the social and political environment at the time. At that point, the exploration of the period and the manner in which the major powers involved were operating, were too tempting to ignore.

Despite the fact that we rooted our research in the Canadian military history, a key element not making one of our literary armies Canadian/Britain; this would immediately identify that side as an easily accessible “good guy. Unlike the Second World War, a distinctive element of WW, is the complete lack of any real good/bad side – each side was lead by an equally reprehensible government. The greatest tragedy of the First World War was that it happened for no good reason at all; people on both sides being hated one another simply because they were told they were supposed to. Despite this, foot soldiers on each side grew so aware of their governments’ manipulations that they disconnected the political from the personal, making moments like the Christmas truce possible.

From another historical angle, the war also fuelled the rise of communism, and the overthrow of the German monarchy – the same events that nearly happened in France at the time. Meanwhile, the play opens quite cleverly with a popular uprising invoking the fair and equal redistribution of grain store, thwarted by conscription for a war with the Volsces – a belligerent neighbor of a nation with much grain to plunder. “No time to fight your oppressors – there’s a scary neighbor abroad!” Again, it just reminded us how some things never change.

T: Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, why did you decide on it for your debut Toronto performance?

S: We were initially planning to produce Julius Caesar, but we heard it was being put off by Wolf Manor Theatre Collective and did not want to step on any toes. I was still hooked on the Roman connection, though, and my frustrations with Brexit (having been living in the U.K. while it was brewing), and the U.S. election, left me looking at the other Roman plays that we could do. At this stage, Tristan, now our Aufidius/Sicinius, directed me to the film adaptation of Coriolanus, which led me to read the play in whole, which led to me being hooked. This play is brilliantly political, action-packed, and maintains an incredible versatility derived from ambiguity. It has been used both as communist and fascist propaganda. You can see both extremes in the text, and choose to play up whichever point of view you please. Its brilliance is that it settles on nothing, it simply calls both parties knaves.

That said, I’m now convinced that the reason it’s less popular has nothing to do with its quality, but simply because it’s incredibly difficult stage effectively. The play is loaded with characters, battles, and riots – the first act alone has 10 rapidly changing scenes. The titular character also poses problems, because he can be almost impossible to empathize with; he brazenly hates the people, is viciously violent, and has a childishly short temper. Coriolanus is not unlike Macbeth in some regards. This a challenge that Andrei identified early, and we have been working on throughout; exploring what makes that Caius Marcius Coriolanus tick has been one of the most satisfying elements of the process.

T: What are you most excited about in this production?

S: The venue we’re using is incredibly intimate, yet the action within the play is huge – it’s one of Shakespeare’s most violent plays, and we chose to set it during one of history’s most brutal wars. Yet, I found the most exciting scenes to bring to life were those that involved the audience specifically, as they become the crowds we lack when staging the people’s assembly in the Roman forum. The play makes tremendous use of the multitude, and though our ensemble is large for an indie show, it is still not enough to capture the size of the crowds invoked. My hope is that these audience members sitting around our thrust stage will feel the adrenaline of these moment, caught up with the characters, and become part of the force.

T: What do you want audiences to take away?

S: First and foremost, I hope audiences understand the language, and what they’re hearing from the actors – it’s the first challenge with Shakespeare, and it should never be taken for granted. Because of this, we have specifically worked with this incredibly skilled cast to focus on the sense of the language. If we pull that off, the themes and connections we’ve found in the play will hopefully shine through. There’s a real sense of dialectic in this play that can still serve to help us question the ideas we take for granted; a lot of what we see unfold is ridiculous, and it should come across that way. Yet, the foundations for the grotesquery are rooted in basic, unavoidable humanity. We should all recognize ourselves and our follies in some form here.

Tori: What are you the most excited about for this production?
Andrei Preda: I am most excited to be taking on the role of Coriolanus. I love performing heightened text, and I feel that there aren’t many modern-day plays that have character arcs as epic as can be found in Shakespeare’s works. I particularly enjoy playing this role because there are aspects of Coriolanus’s personality that I don’t immediately relate to; this encourages me to expand my thinking, and ultimately become more empathetic and understanding as an individual.

T: What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

A: Coriolanus is, in many ways, an anti-hero. I feel that people find these characters interesting because they challenge our views of what might traditionally be considered morally right and wrong. Anti-heroes encourage us to broaden our understanding of different people and circumstances, and ultimately be more empathetic towards others. I feel this is more important than ever in a world where understanding and listening to one another is so pivotal to our relationships. I hope audiences learn to love – or at the very least understand – Coriolanus over the course of the show, despite his wrongdoings.

Tori: What are you the most excited about for this production?

Jeff Yung: Showcasing some young emerging talent, in a lesser done Shakespeare play, and telling this story through staged combat. We have a great fight director who is making everyone look really badass on stage.

T: What are you the most nervous about?

J: There’s a whole lot of running around in ACT 1, as we are bringing to life two different army forces. I hope I don’t mix up any uniforms….

T: What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

J: I hope audiences have a good time, and are able to follow our story with clarity. For me, Coriolanus is a unique story about a person whose pride is so innately part of who they are; it drives them to glory and ultimate downfall. It is interesting to see many of Coriolanus’ character traits live and breathe in today’s political climate, and political leaders. If audiences walk away with anything, I hope it may be an examination of their own dealings with pride and how it may be affecting their lives.

Tori: What are you the most excited about for this production?

Kate McArthur: As a company, Skipping Stones Theatre looks beyond producing enjoyable theatre; we are dedicated to work with all of the amazing independent theatre companies in this city to create a thrilling, inclusive, and equal working sphere for all of our artists. The types of stories we tell are deliberately chosen for their versatility: they can simply be watched for entertainment, or they can (hopefully) inspire conversations on mental health, social justice, or even absurd apocalyptic theories. Essentially, we just hope that we are able to bring people joy, while also giving them a chance to expand their horizons with how they view the world, and the people in it.

T: What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

K: [Sean summed it up, but we will include:] Another fascinating element of the First World War is the fact that it is a war that began on horseback, and ended in tanks. There was such a dramatic advancement in technological, social, and political thought during the period of the Great War; when we look at the social and political shifts seen in Coriolanus, it gives us a stronger perspective on how wartime turmoil can really bring these ideological shifts to a boiling point.

Thanks everyone for your responses!
Skipping Stone’s Production of Coriolanus runs from November 1- 4 at the at Kensington Hall
56 Kensington Avenue, Toronto Ontario M5T 2J9
November 1,2,3,4 @ 7:30 pm
November 4 @ 3:30 pm

Author Tori Carlisle

Toronto Regional Editor. Tori is a current Graduate Student at York University.

More posts by Tori Carlisle

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