Actor André Sills sits at centre of Stratford’s contemporized staging of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus now set for big-screen showing

Ever since the curtain call on opening night at last year’s Stratford Festival, Coriolanus has garnered the adoration of critics and audiences who were equally astonished by the Shakespeare adaptation’s unique use of multimedia and staging to contemporize the 17th Century drama.

In fact, visionary theatre director Robert Lepage so modernized the melodrama that the modified take on one of The Bard’s final tragedies has now been captured on film by director Barry Avrich (Prosecuting Evil) and will be playing in cinemas as part of the Cineplex Event Series, Stratford Festival on Film, giving all Shakespeare addicts a chance to catch the acclaimed adaptation of Coriolanus on the big screen.

Starring André Sills in the title role, Coriolanus follows a military leader who launches into politics with unparalleled popularity. However, his vicious ways soon clash with his contemporaries, and sensing a slide in power he soon becomes vigilant against his own country. It may be a story that originated in ancient Rome, but through technological ingenuity and the infusion of contemporary issues, this Coriolanus is ripe for the digital age.

We caught up with Sills ahead of the show’s cinematic premiere this Saturday at Eau Claire Market Cinemas to discuss the lesser-known classic, how Coriolanus isn’t so different from today’s political leaders and why the New York Times has called it a “dangerous” play.

Q: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play staged so cinematically — almost as if this was made to be projected on Cineplex screens.

A: It was a special event really to take that out on stage – just all the toys and everything that was thrown at this particular production really made it sing.

Q: The play was directed by Robert Lepage and the film directed by Barry Avrich. Can you tell me if or what the difference is in working with directors at those different levels?

A: Well, I guess one thing that was nice about this particular version – this was the first time the festival had filmed anything on the Avalon stage, and that’s a proscenium stage where there’s a definite fourth wall between us and the audience, so the set-up for the cameras was a little bit different where they were very separate from us. Whereas if you’re on the Festival stage you can see all the cameras around you. So it didn’t really change anything for us on stage; there’s five different cameras in the house and each camera had its own responsibility to work on a different focus. All we had to do was do our show and let them capture it.

Q: Well, I guess Barry is best known as a documentary filmmaker so I suppose his job is to just stay out of the spotlight.

A: Yeah, it was a cool experience though for the whole thing.

Q: Your staging of the play has been called “the show of the decade.” I think the Globe and Mail said it was “a landmark production for the Stratford Festival — maybe for William Shakespeare, too.”

A: (Laughs) Yes, it was a looser imagining and I think it was just one of those things where with Robert’s vision on the play he really found a way to make it contemporary and accessible. Because it’s not one of Shakespeare’s easiest plays to do (and) I think in this particular version of it, it really sings to the state that our world is in right now in regards to who we want our leaders to be and who should our leaders be; what type of person should they be. 

Q: As you said, it’s not one of The Bard’s easiest works or his best known works either – but it’s certainly come to the forefront more recently with this and Ralph Fiennes’ recent film adaptation. Is this coincidence or does the play seem to be more prescient in today’s times?

A: Maybe. Coriolanus – he’s a warrior. His main objective is basically to kill for his country and for the upper class in Rome to be like, ‘Yeah, this guy would be perfect for office of whatever sort,’ and then to see that he isn’t necessarily maybe built for that world, he’s built for the battlefield. The one thing about him though is he’s truthful – he always tells the truth, but at the same time it’s his truth and its not necessarily for the good of the people or for anybody else. But yeah, it’s really put a spotlight on who our leaders can be and the type of people we want to have in office around them. 

Q: It’s funny, when you said he speaks “his truth,” that certainly rings familiar, doesn’t it?

A: Yeah, I mean the one thing that I found interesting is that we had the New York Times come down and see the play and they said they liked it but they also said it was dangerous for our times and I was like, “Why, is it a little too close to home?” I think it’s that sort of stuff that we need. We can actually (compare) something that is 400 years old to today and we’re still kind of dealing with the same issues. 

Q: That is kind of the magic of Shakespeare’s works. All of his plays seem to transcend the ages. Is that why his works are so everlasting – because they are so malleable to the times?

A: I think so, and a lot of his plays he takes on some big questions. I think his plays in general are explorations of human beings – the good, the bad and the ugly – and I think a lot of the good is what most people go to the theatre to see, but they want to ignore the bad and the ugly at the same time. But these are the things we have to face in order to move forward.

Q: Do you recall your first exposure to Shakespeare?

A: I think it might have been in theatre school. I had a late start to Shakespeare but some of my teachers were Joe Ziegler (and) Martha Burns who introduced me to Shakespeare, and I guess from there on in I just got a hunger for it and wanted to do a little bit more. So it was great to get the opportunity to come back to Stratford to delve into Coriolanus and get to say those words, which, especially on that particular stage, haven’t been done too often – I think in Stratford’s 60-plus years, its only the fifth production they’ve done of Coriolanus. 

Q: Lastly, I’m curious — do you have a favourite film adaptation of a Shakespeare play?

A: Titus Andronicus. That particular play is so violent, but the way in which (filmmaker Julie Taymor) envisions it, it’s almost beautiful at the same time and as I say, the bad and the ugly – Titus Andronicus deals with a lot of that stuff.

(Photo of Andre Sills in Coriolanus courtesy David Hou.)

Coriolanus screens at Cineplex Odeon Eau Claire Market Cinemas on Saturday, March 23rd at 12:55 p.m.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.