There have been some worthwhile film adaptations of Williams Shakespeare’s plays. A short list would include (but wouldn’t be limited to) Chimes at Midnight, the Kenneth Branagh Much Ado About Nothing and, if you want to stretch, 10 Things I Hate About You. The 2011 film version of Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes is among many that respectably adapted a Bard play for the big screen.
After seeing the Stratford Festival’s shot-from-the-stage, screening-in-movie-theaters version of Coriolanus, though, I’m wondering why moviemakers continue to bother. As it has done in the past with the familiar (Twelfth Night) and the obscure (Timon of Athens), the Stratford creatives have demonstrated that these stories, characters and words are most powerful when they are structured for the stage.
And, thanks to Stratford, some of the finest performances aren’t just being captured for wider distribution but are being creatively shot and edited to maximize their impact. This presentation of Coriolanus is screening locally at the Keystone Art Cinema at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16.
Coriolanus concerns a soldier (Andre Sills) who proves himself on the battlefield but is ill-equipped to deal with the public. Pushed into politics, he doesn’t suffer crowds gladly and refuses to, for instance, show his hard-won scars as proof of his nobility. In Sills’ performance, there’s also a strong hint of PTSD which, coupled with a violent streak, does make one wonder about his ability to lead. He’s also got a mother who has bred him for military success, making matters even more complicated.
Sills first appears as a projected face on a Roman-esque bust. The mix of history and high-tech tips audiences off immediately to the mix that pervades the rest of the play/film. Roman bathhouses and laurel wreaths are mixed with CNN broadcast news, text messaging and spin doctors.
The actual text, Shakespeare’s, is a bit rearranged but not supplemented. And while, as with many of the Bard’s lesser-known plays, it takes a bit of time to sort out the plot and characters, that moment arrives for the patient.
While never hiding that Coriolanus is a stage production, director Barry Avrich (filming Robert Lepage’s production) manages to find just the right reaction shot, just the right opportunity to pull back and just the right moment to let his camera linger. You can do that when you’ve studied an existing production, watching it play in front of live audiences, for weeks.
The Stratford structure allows individual productions to play for months, which not only gives the film director an opportunity to assess shot choices, but also the chance for performances to grow. Unlike in traditional films, which are shot out of sequence and where multiple takes are pieced together in the editing room to create the illusion of a single performance, what you are seeing in these productions are actual, singular performances with very few retakes.
This difference doesn’t just affect the leads. Good luck finding elsewhere the kind of nuanced, compelling work in supporting roles that you find here.