STRATFORD, Ontario — The Roman general Coriolanus hates the hordes he fights for. In the play Shakespeare named for him, he calls the masses curs, hares, measles, geese, rogues, scabs and “the beast with many heads.” But at least he says what he thinks, right?
Not all public figures do. When a fellow officer observes that many great men “have flattered the people, who ne’er loved them,” much of the audience at the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theater here evidently thought of a certain elitist parading as a populist. There arose a weird laugh of grim recognition.
“Coriolanus,” the last play Shakespeare is known to have written solo, is eternally timely in its depiction of the dangers democracy faces at its extremes. One danger is the damage an uninformed populace can do if given voice. Too easily swayed, it helps create the opposite danger, the sneering autocrat, proud and intransigent. So when Coriolanus, the hero of a recent war against the neighboring Volsci, seeks to become Rome’s consul without any love for the people he would rule, disaster ensues for both.
The plot is complicated, featuring machinations and betrayals; Coriolanus ends up defecting to the Volsci and nearly destroying his homeland. It’s also a dense, chewy work, so crammed with knotty verse and political philosophy that it always seems ready to burst its seams and become something else.
The riveting Stratford production, staged by the internationally renowned (and, lately, internationally criticized) director Robert Lepage, finishes the job of genre reassignment. His “Coriolanus” is essentially a live film. As if to trumpet the transformation, it even starts, after a jaw-dropping teaser of a prologue, with a projected credit sequence.
That prologue — in which a huge bust of Coriolanus mysteriously starts speaking — is a pretty good example of the thrilling stagecraft Mr. Lepage delivers throughout. (He is also credited as the set designer.) Using projected imagery, live video, sliding diorama-like boxes and panels that converge and dilate in front of the action, he creates stage equivalents of pans and tracking shots, irises, close-ups and letterbox effects.
Though none of the individual techniques would seem new to audiences that frequent the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Park Avenue Armory or other redoubts of the avant-garde in New York — let alone those that saw Mr. Lepage’s “Ring” cycle at the Metropolitan Opera — they are used so incessantly here, with such technical skill and in such striking combinations, as to render them newly expressive.
The intended effect varies. In one gorgeous tableau, Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, and his wife, Virgilia, sit behind a translucent screen the width of the stage, appearing to sew the tapestry projected on it. You instantly apprehend the shadowy domesticity of women in that society — one that constrains even the domineering Volumnia. Basically the Mama Rose of Rome, she eggs her son to do what she could probably do better.
Other technological interpolations do not so much augment as leaven or caption the story. In what is typically a banal passage of exposition among supernumeraries, two sentinels use iPhones to peck out their dialogue as text messages — and deliver a huge laugh. When Coriolanus leaves Rome to offer his military services to his former enemies, Mr. Lepage has him hop into a silver car and drive through sunlight and rain like a double agent in a thriller.
Though the outline of Shakespeare’s play remains visible at the intersection of all these aesthetic perspectives, something has definitely shifted. That’s not because of the modern setting, or even the fairly radical reorganization and cutting of the text. (A nearly four-hour play in its entirety, “Coriolanus” clocks in at less than three hours here.)
Those alterations do no harm and, in some cases, enhance the immediacy of the themes. By resetting dialogue-heavy scenes as talk radio gabfests, and representing the uninformed mob as anonymous voices on social media, Mr. Lepage helps clarify Shakespeare’s portrait of a world, like ours, overwhelmed with insincerity. We get the other side of that, too, from the sight of Coriolanus gritting his teeth as he goes door to door on the Roman streets to curry favor among people he despises.
All these clever correlations have a disturbing side effect, though: They enhance the sense that, despite his failings, Coriolanus really is a hero. To some degree, that’s baked into the play, which has been read as anti-mob as often as anti-autocrat. It’s also baked into the performance of André Sills, a magnetic and imposing actor in his Stratford debut.
It doesn’t help that Mr. Lepage turns Coriolanus’s antagonists into gassy lobbyists and phone jockeys while giving his supporters all the dignity. As Volumnia, the 31-year Stratford veteran Lucy Peacock, who is also playing Juno and Satan this season, has the operatic charisma of a Verdi princess; she makes huge music of a role that should perhaps be less delicious.
That’s exactly the problem with Mr. Lepage’s brilliant expressiveness: In the context of an antiheroic tale, it tends to ennoble the wrong thing. The near starvation of the Roman poor and the threatened destruction of Rome itself? Nothing much to moan about there. But the self-induced downfall of an arrogant autocrat? That’s a tragedy.
Or a slick one, anyway — and this “Coriolanus,” produced in collaboration with Mr. Lepage’s Montreal-based company, Ex Machina, is nothing if not slick. That’s an anomaly at Stratford, whose focus is usually less on machinery than on performance and whose ethos is usually more earnest. And so even though I found the production exhilarating, it also left me uneasy about its precious self-regard.
Mr. Lepage, after all, is the visionary who just directed a play called “Slav,” in which a largely white cast played enslaved black people picking cotton in the American South. (Citing security reasons, the producers of “Slav” shuttered it after two performances, but four other companies have announced their intention to mount it.) A coming Ex Machina production called “Kanata,” about First Nations Canadians, likewise neglects to include any input from the people it depicts.
Auteurs like Mr. Lepage can obviously produce what they like, and others can protest it. But allusions to creative freedom as a defense strike me as the same sort of pride and intransigence Shakespeare cautions against in “Coriolanus.” Maybe Mr. Lepage sees in the tragic Roman not so much a brilliant warrior as a brilliant artist. If so, he might also bear Shakespeare’s ambivalence in mind. Being some kind of genius does not automatically make you some kind of hero.
Follow Jesse Green on Twitter: @JesseKGreen.
Through Oct. 20 at the Avon Theater at the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario; 800-567-1600, stratfordfestival.ca. Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes.