Sunday, November 22, 2009

Theatre Review : Roman Tragedies by William Shakespeare - Toneelgroep Amsterdam - Barbican (dir Ivo van Hove 22/11/09)

To be perfectly honest, Shakespeare's Roman Tragedies are my least favourite part of his canon. I find Coriolanus's shifts in loyalty difficult to come to terms with and the politics of Julius Caesar leaves me cold. Antony and Cleopatra has some magnificent set pieces, but large parts - unless well-directed - can be quite static. So signing up for 6 hours of Roman Tragedies, in Dutch with no interval, was an explicit act of faith in the Barbican BITE's production team's continuing ability to bring the absolute best in international theatre to London.

My faith was fully justified - this was superb.

In the programme, Ivo van Hove talks about how he wants to focus on the politics and relationships. He cuts the crowd scenes and replaces the battles with tremendous explosions of percussion, composed by Eric Sleichim. The cast wear modern suits, except when in the more intimate surrounds of Cleopatra's court. The set is an expansive arrangement of angular settees, like a conference centre or airport lounge, surmounted by a screen on which real-time video of the actors is projected Katie Mitchell-style (see along with the surtitles.

I have written elsewhere how performing Shakespeare in a foreign language gives the director a freedom with the text that is usually missing when it is performed in English. To judge by the surtitles, significant liberties had been taken with the text whilst keynote speeches remained unchanged. By necessity, one loses the poetry of Shakespeare's language when performing in translation, but in this case the poetry was replaced by a drive and immediacy appropriate to the modern setting.

Coriolanus was the weakest part of the trilogy, and could have been cut completely and not impacted the whole. There is a major historical discontinuity between this play and Julius Caesar and, whilst interesting in paring down some of the baggage of this messy play, it never scaled the heights emotionally or politically.

Julius Caesar, however, was a different matter. Cutting the crowd scenes gave the political machinations a clarity and immediacy which brought the play to life. Hans Kesting played Marc Antony from a wheelchair, having injured his foot the week before. When asked to reply to Brutus' funeral oration, he wheels himself to the lectern. The camera, shows only the top of his head, making him look faintly ridiculous. He hauls himself to his feet, staring at the audience in a silence which seemed to last for ever. Then he thows his text to the floor, grabs a microphone and wheels to the front of the stage, where a handheld camera zooms in as he splutters "Friends... Romans... countrymen...". Electrifying.

In Antony and Cleopatra, suits are swapped for joggers and pyjamas at Cleopatra's sexually smouldering court. Chris Nietvelt plays Cleopatra as willful and passionate but lacking proper emotional intelligence, screaming when she doesn't get her way. With Marieke Heebink as Charmian barely able to keep her hands off Cleopatra herself, the court is a pressure-cooker of the passions which stifles as the battles plans of Antony and Cleopatra go awry. The long final scene became almost unwatchable as the intensity mounted.

Whilst all this was happening, the audience were invited to mingle with the actors on the settees on the stage. At the side of the stage, in keeping with the conference centre theme, was a bar and food stalls, and a computer where you could type comments which were displayed on the rolling infobar along with news updates, footballs scores and updates on the historical background under the main screen. This sounds gimmicky, and was to a certain extent - but it fitted well with the modern setting of the production.

This was adventurous theatre which took apart Shakespeare and put him together anew for the 21st century, making him modern, accessible and very much relevant. It was quite simply the most eye-opening reimagining of his work that I have seen - fresh, clear, lucid and exciting.

This production ran for only three days at the Barbican, barely time to make the reviews before it finished. Once the word is out, it must return...

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