Toneelgroep Amsterdam, led by Ivo Van Hove, first brought Roman Tragedies to the Barbican in 2009. It’s back and thrillingly fresh, despite the passage of years and cast changes. It is not Shakespeare, and doesn’t really pretend to be, but it riffs on three of Shakespeare’s Roman history plays – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Carving out from those plays any matter that does not really focus on politics, Roman Tragedies is a near flawless theatrical extravaganza, which shines a light on all aspects of political life, ambition and deception.
The podium is awash with microphones and their stands. Just the way they are arranged suggests a big deal, a big speech, big coverage. Video technology captures the moment, tells the masses what is happening. It might be an inauguration, or a political party conference, or an announcement about entry into war. Significant, portentous, but, at the same time, familiar.
An expensively suited man steps up to the podium. He is calm, dignified, slightly oily. He addresses the people. Smooth words tumble from his smooth, unsweating visage. He knows he is smart, sure he is right, and certain that soon everyone else will agree with what he has done and what he proposes to do. He seems like so many politicians – completely sure his way is right and a trifle uncaring if the people don’t see it that way too.
His words have been carefully chosen. He uses fear with the listening hordes – did you really want to be slaves? He makes his case, his rhetoric grand, his temperature cool, his passions hidden. His speech ends. He steps back to the line of his colleagues, all of whom are pleased with how well his speech has gone, how their message has been conveyed and accepted. They wait in their line for the next speaker, the man they have authorised to speak.
He enters, flustered, clearly not in control. He seems to be rent by emotion. He readies himself to speak, but then seems unable. Eyes roll behind him. He tears up his prepared speech, stumbles to the ground, loosens his tie – is he ill? Silently he weeps.
The cameras refocus, reposition. They don’t want to miss this. They put him into close-up, making sure they capture his pain. He breathes erratically. What has happened to make him so distressed, so vulnerable? This very masculine sportsman with an eye for the ladies? When he finally speaks, everyone is listening to every word. Every. Word.
As the previous speaker and his allies realise the enormity of the mistake made in permitting him to speak, and one by one totter away from the spotlight, as the crowd turns against them, a question hovers. Is he talking with real, undisguised feeling, or is this just a superb but cynical piece of political manoeuvering?
This is Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies, presented by his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and now playing at the Barbican. It’s an astonishing spectacle, thoroughly theatrical, and alarmingly insightful about the modern world given it is based on Shakespeare’s writings from the 1600s.
Jan Versweyveld’s set replicates the sort of convention centre/hotel accommodation that one is used to seeing from countless television current affairs broadcasts. It also has the sense of the green room (grey in this case) of any international broadcaster about it, with make-up stations and sound desks and bars close to hand. It’s an endless marriage of cold, colourless fixtures, the promise of glamour and excitement always on the fringes.
Roman Tragedies does not feature any of the scenes Shakespeare wrote for the crowds in Coriolanus, Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. Those are all excised to properly concentrate on the thoughts, words and deeds of the political classes. This is an inspired touch, which both focuses attention on the politics and underlines the way that the people most affected by political decisions are rarely, if ever, considered or consulted while they are made.
But Van Hove does not stop there. The audience is allowed, indeed encouraged, to enter the stage area and immerse themselves in the production. The audience becomes the relevant population and reflects their interest in politics: some actively engage, some listen attentively, some yawn and only partly care what is going on but they keep an eye on the cameras, some just get in the way. Some find that they have lost their seats when they return to the auditorium; some leave, having had their moment in the sun.
Citizens wax and wane, ebb and flow, come and go: Politics endures, in some form or another.
At about 5 hours and 44 minutes (including many short breaks and some longer ones), Roman Tragedies is undoubtedly a long time in the theatre. Probably thirty minutes could be shaved off the performing time easily, but, even so, the time does not drag. The energy of the performers is high octane and there is a constant momentum, intrigue and interest.
There are so many clever directorial touches. There is no blood split. Cold, bloodless murder and suicide is the order of the day – political lives and political deaths. A shaft of white light signifies death, along with an LED display that identifies the body and the date of birth and death. A photo, like a piece of police evidence, captures the image of the dead. When Mark Antony wants to show the crowd what happened to Caesar, he uses a red marker pen on a publicity photo. Conflicts, wars, battles are not depicted but the sense of them, terrifying, loud, fractious and unwieldy, is conveyed by music and sound effects. Cleopatra’s asp is real and carried in a Tupperware container.
The acting is of the highest order. Although the lines are spoken in Dutch, meaning is nevertheless succinctly conveyed and the precision of diction is remarkable. Shakespeare’s language is gone, and surtitles provide a grimly journalistic account of what is said, although some passages, such as Enobarbus’ speech about Cleopatra or Antony’s funeral oration, retain a lyrical edge. None of these actors are afraid of pauses, or of taking their time, or of animatedly gabbling – but none of them miss any of the moments the work offers them.
Gils Scholten van Aschat is remarkable as Coriolanus and the glorious interaction between him and his formidable mother, Volumnia, (a pitch perfect Frieda Pittoors) is sensational, offset magnificently by the tight-lipped fury of Bart Sledgers’ Aufidius. Rarely has the sense of dissatisfaction with the two-party political system seemed so acute than as here.
Much is cut from Julius Caesar but its effect is not diminished for that. Marieke Heebink is spiky, smart and ultimately tragic as Cassius and it is thrilling to watch her open up Eelco Smits’ cerebral Brutus to the possibilities of assassination and then see her side-lined and ignored, even when she is right. If Brutus had followed her advice, Antony’s place in history would be very different. Clever juxtapositioning of the Calpurnia/Caesar scene (where she warns him of her vision) and the Brutus/Portia scene makes them both more effective and heightens the tension. Janni Goslinga is particularly good as Calpurnia, a good foil to Hugo Koolschijn’s magisterial Caesar.
Hans Kesting is quite marvellous as Mark Antony. His performance is like the others in the cast, crisp, brilliantly exact, unerring, but also different from theirs – it is easy to see his Antony as a man others would follow. Brutus underestimates him with fatal consequences. Kesting’s handling of the oration for Caesar is an unqualified triumph, a supreme feat of superb acting. He morphs easily into the the slightly lost character in thrall to Chris Nietvelt’s exhilarating and sexually intense Cleopatra. Their scenes together are driven by insatiable lust and need; indeed, the whole Antony and Cleopatra section is awash with unrestrained sexual charge. But it is Nietvelt’s fascinating and intensely persuasive Cleopatra who shines most brightly in a production full of star turns.
Maria Kraakman brings an icy resoluteness to Octavius, but you can clearly see the shape of the Augustus to come. Harm Duco Schut gives a masterclass in silent acting as the terrified and whipped Proculeius and Alwain Pulinckx another one in unswerving devotion as Dolabella. Marieke Heebink and Frieda Pittoors are marvellous as Cleopatra’s support team, and Bart Slegers’ Enorbabus is a meticulous and suprisingly amorous lieutenant for Kesting.
Roman Tragedies is an extraordinary achievement. Its genius lies in its originality, using Shakespeare as a base. In this, it is quite a different work from more recent pieces from Van Hove: The Crucible on Broadway or Hedda Gabler at the National. Here, he takes the material and fashions something from it, using multi-media techniques which suit and facilitate his purpose. He makes no attempt to stage any of the three Shakespeare plays in a way which seeks to present those works as plays in their own right; he does not seek to use his modern technique to illuminate those texts, but to illuminate a different issue entirely.
In truth, he creates a dazzling spectacle that ruminates, in a quite unrelenting way, about politics and politicians. Suddenly Brexit and Trump seem all that more comprehensible.
Absolutely unmissable. Possibly the theatrical event of the year. Again.