Roman Tragedies @ Barbican: Lend Me Your Ears

How do you even attempt to write about Roman Tragedies? It’s become one of the defining theatre-pieces of the age since its premiere a decade ago. I still can’t quite believe I got to see it.

Look, it’s brilliant. Properly, properly brilliant. Not that this is a reliable measurement, but I can count the number of truly spontaneous standing ovations I’ve been a part of on one hand – and this was one of them, which is only appropriate for a production that has spontaneity in spades. I forced myself to go in with no expectations, in fact, I had almost convinced myself it was going to be a nightmare. I’d booked my ticket quite late, I’d never seen a film entirely in another language, let alone a play – and let alone anything six-hours long. It ended up feeling like ten minutes. Ten wonderful minutes.

If you’re not familiar with Roman Tragedies, three of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra – are cut into a single performance with hardly a break, performed by the same cast on a stage that welcomes the audience into the space. This means that after about 20 minutes you can go onto the stage, buy a drink, charge your phone or whatever, while absolute Shakespearean mayhem goes on behind you. It’s the creation of Ivo van Hove of noted tomato juice fame, designed by Jan Versweyveld and performed by the ensemble of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, who I should say up front are as good a company of actors as I’ve ever seen.

It is an insight into modern politics. It is about democracy, or more significantly the illusion of democracy; the audience is made to appear part of the process/performance, but it is not. There are places we cannot go on the stage, roles we can never play. The performers are simultaneously character and actor, or perhaps somewhere in between. We never see the joins – Hans Kesting has the same physicality as he rights a fallen plant pot in the background, as he does when he delivers Mark Antony’s funeral oration. The gap between person and politics is incredibly blurred, as is the gap between the public and private, both at the mercy of the camera’s gaze, beaming the images up onto a massive screen above the stage.

It’s safe to say that the three central figures of these plays are characters for whom politics is a complicated business. Coriolanus couldn’t give a damn about the public in a society that has just moved away from monarchy, Brutus learns far too late that opacity allows him to be outmanoeuvred, and Antony discovers that truthfulness and emotion are to be his downfall. Three portraits of men destroyed by what could be their greatest assets: stubbornness, cunning and honesty, the recipe of tragedy.

*

Coriolanus was the play most unfamiliar to me, having never seen it or read it before, so I decided ahead of time I was going to stay in the auditorium, with the ability to see the big screen and the surtitles, simply so I knew what was going on. I can’t pretend I’m still entirely sure what it’s about. It seems to me Coriolanus (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) is about a man who believes himself so entitled to power on his own terms because of his military success that he is willing to take it by force, even after he has been offered it by more democratic means. Rome is a new republic; it has broken with monarchy and it’s expanding – determined to stick to the new rules of the game. It serves to introduce the ideas of the piece; the relationships between debate and argument, and how quickly they can escalate into violence over a conference table, and how this can lead to war.

Speaking of which, the war scenes are thrilling. There’s no violence represented onstage, rather the war is suggested by static filled screens and thundering percussion. Context is provided on screens, covering vast swathes of history and drama in a couple of sentences. Not unlike modern news, then. The war scenes last slightly longer than you expect, and as you wait for it to end it’s like the audience is taking a deep breath in anticipation – because we quickly gather that war is followed by political disaster, and it’s the politics we see represented on stage at a human scale. No blood, only words.

This is how Coriolanus opens, with the war that demonstrates the eponymous soldier’s prowess. It ends with his death, the first of many in the six hours; we are given a countdown, and then he is wheeled into a short corridor between two glass panels. As he dies, an overhead photo is taken, freezing him forever in a public image. This is the template all other deaths in Roman Tragedies follow. From what I can glean, this is the most closely edited text of the three, and possibly due to several factors (I didn’t know the play, I was tuning into the Dutch and the Shakespeare, this ‘type’ of theatre is still slightly alien to me…) I was left feeling slightly ambivalent. I didn’t get it yet.

*

Julius Caesar is another matter entirely. Now they’ve lulled you into comfort, and a vague sense that you know what’s going on – the lid gets blown off. Julius Caesar feels much higher stakes than its predecessor, as the death of one leader is immediately followed by a discussion of the killing of another. Eelco Smits plays Brutus, the youngest of the three tragic heroes. He’s physically slighter, with a sense of clinical danger about him. He may not throw a chair at you, but he’s more than willing to push a knife between your ribs. Which is of course, exactly what Brutus does. He is swayed into violence by Cassius, the suggestion being that unless he had been swayed he would have sought political means to the same ends, that is the deposition of Caesar. It’s probably worth remembering that Julius Caesar himself became Caesar through violence, although this was victory in civil war as opposed to knifing his political antagonist in the back. The Roman Republic has, by this point, become too large and too thin to apply democratic means it would seem.

But Brutus seeks diplomacy even after the point of no return, the murder. There is no question for the audience that allowing Mark Antony (Hans Kesting) to speak at Caesar’s funeral is a mistake, because as good as Brutus is behind the scenes, he cannot possibly match the presence of Antony. Not in a million years. In Smits’ performance there is a sense that even he knows this, but he has to offer it anyway. Brutus thinks it is the act that will right his wrong without letting on, and will allow politics to continue. He is dramatically wrong.

The funeral of Julius Caesar is one of the most brilliant things Shakespeare ever wrote. Brutus speaks first, justifying his actions – it goes down well enough. He steps aside and Antony begins to talk. In this staging, it becomes a press conference, Brutus speaking formally into a bank of microphones, flanked by the murderers of Caesar. He steps back, and Antony enters. He steps up to the microphone, pauses, then rips up his speech. He waits a while longer, then he removes the microphone from the stand. He lowers himself to the floor, beckons the camera over and begins to talk. Gone are the interjections from the plebians, resulting in a long, long monologue that cements Brutus’ downfall with every word more. It’s without question one of the most riveting things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Kesting begins by talking quietly into the microphone, slowly, allowing the words to accumulate in weight. As he goes on gets louder, he stands, he walks around. He stands in the auditorium, unamplified, speaking the speech. There was one moment where (I was sat on stage by this point) he caught my eye, and instinctively I felt myself look away, because when an actor like Hans Kesting looks at you, you drop your bloody gaze. His sheer physical presence, his use of his voice and the forensic nature of the camera leaves you in no doubt Antony has chosen this moment to undermine absolutely everything Brutus has tried to do on an emotional basis. There is no smooth-talking politician in him, just the grieving man with immense power and the opportunity to demonstrate it.

The conspirators collapse. War ensues. There is something slightly pathetic at how quickly Brutus allows the situation to run away from him; he can’t even ensure Octavian, Caesar’s heir, is on his side. In another political/personal parallel, his wife, Portia, has killed herself. His world is collapsing and he is utterly incompetent. The only thing he has control of is his own life, which he elects to end. He feels the most tragic of the characters; yes, the end of Antony and Cleopatra is devastating, but the ‘proper’ catharsis where pity is a fundamental sensation, comes with the death of Brutus.

*

I’ve often read that Antony is not a good part for an actor, particularly when compared to Cleopatra. I can’t help but feel this is something a bad actor would say, particularly after seeing this version of Antony and Cleopatra. If I ever see another as good, I will be incredibly lucky. Maybe it helps that it has the weight of four hours of drama preceding it, maybe it’s because Kesting finds his match in the utterly superb Chris Nietvelt as Cleopatra, maybe it’s the wit to the staging… whatever alchemy it is, it’s fantastic.

Admission time: I still had this stupid and unfounded belief that ‘European Theatre’ (whatever the hell that is) is a far more intellectual experience than emotional. This is because I’m still hugely ignorant to just about everything about ‘European Theatre.’ Antony and Cleopatra absolutely destroys this assumption. It takes a fecking baseball bat to it. It smashes that assumption into tiny little pieces and then it dances all over them to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. There was something profoundly emotional about Antony and Cleopatra saying goodbye to the strains of Bob Dylan’s Not Dark Yet and in the raw, visceral grief of Cleopatra as she pummels the glass separating her from her love, and her screams over his dead body.

Nietvelt’s Cleopatra is a bit of a hot mess. She runs around in a slip, hair wild, physically craving Antony. There is a scene where she is informed that Antony has made a political marriage to Octavia. Cleo (if I may) is infuriated, attempting to physically attack the messenger, needing to be placated by her women, calming down, and then reacting in an identical way again, and again. It’s very, very funny, but you also completely understand why Antony is enthralled by her. She’s passionate, committed, and dangerously impulsive. She dances to Hump de Bump, sexuality is made freer in Egypt, the comedy is turned up in the mix, and all this makes their deaths an hour or so later incredibly moving.

Even as the tragedy sets in at the advent of Empire, there is a joy to Antony and Cleopatra. Of all Shakespeare’s characters, perhaps the only two that know each other as well are Benedick and Beatrice. The joy we feel as an audience when Benedick and Beatrice are married is mirrored by our grief at the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. This sense of completion in the characters is mirrored by a culmination in the production. Music, video, politics, imagery are all used at their very best; it feels genuinely celebratory, a fascinating juxtaposition with the bleakness of the play’s ending, as the Republic dies.

*

If there is a sacrifice made, it’s in the language. I don’t speak Dutch, and I’m not sure how literal the translation in the surtitles was, but it seems to me that the language is pared back to allow the motivation of each line to come to the forefront. Some of the poetry survives, as do the iconic lines, but never at the expense of immediate clarity.

The brilliance of Roman Tragedies is in its immediacy; it feels dangerous. It feels like the fourth hour of a party, like being in a nuclear bunker as the war rages above, like a total sensory overload. It shouldn’t be an endgame, and I don’t think it is. It’s more like an opportunity, or a suggestion. This can be an answer to theatre in the contemporary era. This is how things can be done, rather than should, or must. Van Hove leaves us with a scrolling list of questions as we leave the theatre. Roman Tragedies offers no definitive answer; it is a proposal, one I very much hope theatre-makers accept.

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