The Bard in Canada: a solid 'Coriolanus,' but . . .

It is the solid veterans of the Stratford Festival stage that have traditionally given this company its continuity and excellence. But many are missing this first season under its new artistic director, John Hirsch, and the replacements are young and none too experienced. The lack of good character actors means that youngsters run around with gray faces and ruddy pink hands, and this is not the stuff of theatrical credibility.

Clearly Mr. Hirsch's task will be to rebuild that core rebuild the excellence of Stratford, so that the leads will not have to play in a vacuum. It is very clear that nationalism without excellence is no honor. Canadian talent should certainly be at the core of Stratford's excellence -- when it is sufficiently trained. But that training comes from the presence of the best of the English-speaking talent coming together. Thus player and audience alike benefit from memorable theater, and without that, Stratford could no longer be called one of North America's finest festival stages.

At the Stratford Festival 1981, only one of its two Bardian productions can be deemed of traditional Stratford quality. In fact, its Shakespeare has been uneven for the past few seasons.

The Bard, of course, has been the backbone of Stratford ever since Tyrone Guthrie initiated the entire venture 29 seasons ago, and at its best Stratford has always offered compelling stagings of familiar and not-so-familiar Shakespearean works.

Take "Coriolanus," Shakespeare's unrelenting study of the eternal class struggle. It is a work that fascinated Bertolt Brecht, who was working on his own performing adaptation of the play at his death. Though viewed as both a pro-fascist and a pro-communist tract in this age, it really takes no special viewpoint at all. Shakespeare presents, in a balanced, lucid, extremely tight manner, the story of Coriolanus, Roman nobleman and soldier, whose disdain of the people leads to his exile.

He has been dominated by his harridan of a mother from birth and has an inflexible sense of duty. His respect for brutal heroism allows him to become commander of his one-time mortal enemies. In the end, his mother, wife, and son come to his camp at the gates of Rome to plead for mercy. He capitulates to his mother and finally meets his death for betraying his enemy-friends.

Actor Brian Bedford may have had troubles coming to terms with "The Misanthrope," but as a director of "Coriolanus" he knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. True, the first act dragged seriously, but shortly into Act II the best performers took wing, Bedford's directorial mechanism got into gear, and the play was off and running.

Bedford's clear sense of line was impressive -- his ability to set a mood and scene quickly and neatly so the audience could immediately grasp what was going on, and on what levels. No other production during the opening week managed so much, or with even remotely the same skill. From the first glimpse of the rabble to the final frieze of that same group, the effect was effectively frightening (superb lighting by Michael J. Whitfield made us unaware of the balcony and steps on which they were actually standing).

Len Cariou, in the title role, did not quickly find the core of his character , but after the first intermission he suddenly became imaginative in his handling of lines and offered a substantial Coriolanus (receiving the only standing ovation of the week).

In his scenes with his enemy, Tullus Aufidius, Cariou had the strong Scott Hylands as a foil. Hylands, new to the festival this year, is an imposing performer. He presented a barbarian of savagery and towering dignity. Vocally he could project, in seemingly endless volume, words and yells, so that in the final scene, in which Aufidius's rage culminates in Coriolanus's murder, the two actors together took on near-superhuman presence and power.

The other crucial scene for Cariolanus occurs when his mother pleads for Rome , knowing full well she will dominate her son and destroy him. Barbara Chilcott could simply not suggest any of that overbearing force of character, and the scene passed for naught.

"Coriolanus" requires a large cast, though very few people have much of a chance to shine. Notable was Lewis Gordon's eloquent and earnestly effective Menenius Agrippa. And it was particularly good to see Max Helpmann back in action after being away. His tribune-of-the-people, Sicinius Velutus, was a masterly study in cynical use of power. (Would that his excellence had inspired even a handful of the supporting players.)

What has been dispiritingly obvious this Stratford season is the weakness at the core of the company. This all but undermined "The Taming of the Shrew," which relies on expert players in all secondary parts. Thanks to Susan Benson, the show looked fine -- soft fabrics in subdued browns, tans, and greens. But when the character Vincentio is the star of this play -- Mr. Helpmann, indeed, gave the only fully rounded, superbly enunciated performance of the evening -- something is way off balance.

Mr. Cariou was commendable and earnest as Petruchio, rather than a dominating one. Sharry Flett was apparently not experienced to make the tempestuous Kate have any impact. Beautiful though she may be, she did not convey any subtext to the role, any development or viewpoint. The final submission speech found her trying to play against the apparently sexist words, but not sufficiently so.

By this point, the Peter Dews production had altogether run out of steam, what with its leaden pacing, its ponderous jokes, and its elaborate reminder of the play- within-the play setting. (Mr. Dews even tagged on an ending, where Shakespeare had none, to "tie up" that play within a play.) With the exception of Mr. Helpmann and Patrick Christopher, no supporting player was up to his or her role.

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