Sunday 22 November 2009

The Roman Tragedies - Barbican

[Written for]

[For those of you pressed for time, Lyn Gardner manages to arrive at pretty much the same conclusions using 1,900 fewer words. And she filed on the night. Consider me a little in awe.]

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s The Roman Tragedies, directed by Ivo van Hove, designed and lit by Jan Versweyveld, collects Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra and stages them back to back for six hours; more or less solidly.

And what a staging it is.

The main stage of the Barbican’s theatre has been converted into a kind of chic corporate hospitality space. There are nicely minimalist sofas everywhere, large widescreen televisions, potted plants, and bars on either side, along with a small internet café, newspapers and coffee. This is Coriolanus by press conference for the CNN generation, a kind of living manifestation of Baudrillard’s The Iraq War Did Not Take Place (a massively misunderstood title, btw, which is actually derived from Giradoux’s play La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu, which unfortunately became The Tiger at the Gates in English, thus depriving us of the chance to understand what Baudrillard was driving at).

One of the things that is interesting when watching Shakespeare in a foreign language is seeing what’s been done with the translation back to English for the surtitles. Here, barring a few odd phrases here and there (it was nice to see “O, happy horse...” and “Serpent of old Nile” survive), Tom Kleijn’s translation is mostly rendered in slightly more colourless lexical choices than Shakespeare made. However, given the staging, this works rather well as it doesn’t feed the production back into English antiquity. Instead we are watching “Europeans” in the 21st century.

After the first twenty minutes of the play – probably the first forty minutes of any other production; quite considerable cuts have been made – there is a “Scene Change”. Not much actual scenery gets moved, however, the audience is invited, should it wish, to go up onto the stage, get a coffee or wine, sit on the numerous sofas and watch the next bit at close quarters or on the big TVs.

After this, the atmosphere in the theatre completely changes. Suddenly it’s a whole lot more relaxed. The auditorium remains slightly lit, and the doors of the Barbican theatre are left open until the closing minutes (if you’ve not been there, rather than having aisles inside the theatre, the Barbican has them running outside the auditorium, with heavy wooden doors giving access to each end of every row. These doors normally automatically close in unison when the lights go down). There’s suddenly an unusual amount of agency. Given that the show runs for six hours pretty much without a break, this atmosphere of relaxation is enormously welcome, as is the sudden dispersal of the audience. All at once there is a lot more elbow and leg room (it’s pretty much exactly the atmosphere that I proposed would be the ideal conditions for viewing The Habit of Art, actually).

But these greatly improved viewing conditions are only part of the story. Thanks to having part of the audience on stage, there’s also now a vastly increased mise-en-scene. And it works brilliantly for Coriolanus. After all, the root of all Gaius Martius’s problems is his point-blank refusal to pander to the wishes of the people, or the people’s tribunes. That said, this relationship isn’t directly invoked here. The EU-fication of the look of the thing put everyone in suits. The people’s tribunes look like young, but professional negotiators. While to an extent this is a play about the power of the outraged masses, here it is mediated (aptly enough). We see the protesting people only on video screens. In fact, rather than a corporate hospitality area, what the staging most feels like is a newsroom – indeed, there are even sections where the Volciscan leader Aufidius is interviewed by a news anchor-woman.

Instead, what having the audience on stage here seems to stage is a professional class milling about both in newsrooms – watching election reports and breaking news or those clustered around television sets in cafés and bars, watching a public crisis unfold. It evokes a world from which “the people” are excluded, and yet are presented as the raison d’etre of the leadership. As such, it feels like a perfect evocation of modern politics. Perhaps this is a particularly British reading, mirroring concerns about the professionalisation of politics, and perhaps a wider concern about power being devolved to Brussels. Either way, as a way of opening up the dilemmas of Coriolanus, it is absolutely spot-on and totally engrossing, at the same time as presenting the most successfully “contemporary” Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, and offering an incredibly successful kind of “immersive” way of viewing.

Five minutes before Coriolanus meets his end, the red LED text scroller offers the message “5 Minutes until the death of Coriolanus”. It then counts down, until he is laid on a low trolley that runs on tracks between two glass partitions. The trolley is slammed home, and a camera takes a last, over-head shot of his prone body, which appears on the vast screen overhanging the stage, with the text scroller showing his name and the dates of his life. Then, without pause, Julius Caesar starts.

If Coriolanus worked well in this mediatised update of classical Rome, then Julius Caesar positively revelled in it. Where Coriolanus adapted the text around the need for on-stage plebeians to a certain extent, this Julius Caesar plays much more thoroughly with the idea of public address and who that public is. The private plotting scenes are carried on pretty much as standard, with suited conspirators meeting in what we imagine as anonymous corporate rooms downstage, while the audience continues to mill around behind them, or is seated in the auditorium before them. It is the funeral oration which is really transformed.

Joe Kelleher in his contribution to the Theatre &... series, Theatre & Politics, uses this section of Julius Caesar for a discussion of how theatre and politics interact – where the choice is to either stage the speech to the audience – thus theoretically achieving none of the impact it actually achieves, since the audience do not then take to the stage and riot – or else staging it by showing the orations being delivered to a largely crowd of costumed extras, thus placing the immediacy of the speech as some remove.

Watching it mostly on television from a sofa by the bar on the stage, it felt like I was seeing perhaps the best version possible. I could look over and see the “real” Mark Anthony hailing a “real” audience (though a mic with that echo/short reverb effect that invariably recalls the Nuremberg Rallies, and of which I shall never tire, no matter how much of a cliché it may be). Or I could watch the close up, being live-fed into the TV in front of me, along with dozens of my fellow audience members. It perfectly evokes the kind of speech that people would watch on television in a shared public space. Like watching 9/11 coverage in bars, or those American election night viewing parties, or Barack Obama’s inaugural speech. The sort of moments that have such evident public impact that people feel compelled to watch them together, as if for reassurance.

Even though it’s plainly a fantasy – when you’re on stage, you can see the lights, the auditorium, the actors, etc. – it’s one which, thanks, I think, to precisely these sorts of resonances, feels remarkably easy to become immersed in.

The “newsroom” type feel also makes a lot of sense of the “battle” scenes. Instead of showing anyone on stage actually doing any fighting, the lights flicker, two percussionists at either side of the stage make a fearsome racket, strobe lights flash in our eyes, while the performers run to and fro with clip boards much like one might expect panicked TV executives to as outside their studios conflict rages. While only on the video screens do we see footage of troop movements, tanks moving through bombed streets and the like. Again, a perfect evocation of modern warfare being something we only see on screen.

I ducked out for slightly more of Julius Caesar than I intended, something the makers of The Roman Tragedies both intend and legislate for. Nevertheless, my take on the whole is slightly incomplete as a result.

For all the immersive properties of the first two plays, there is a certain clinical edge to them. While one does take them in experientially, there is also always a kind of forensic interest winning out. One sees the plays anatomised. It certainly opens them up, and makes fascinating and suggestive parallels, but while you are considering their political import, you aren’t really feeling the emotional journeys of the characters. Perhaps this is also due in part to the less emotive, more matter-of-fact language you’re reading. There is no deliberate manipulation of your emotions. Indeed, the text scrollers announcing the death of a character five minutes before they die is at once amusing, kitsch and distancing. It gets a knowing laugh from the audience, and as such, makes the death itself feel somewhat less tragic and more of an historical inevitability. Which, of course, they are. You become dimly aware at the lengths other productions must have to go to in order to wring some sort of tragedy out of these tragedies.

That is, until Antony and Cleopatra.

Mark Antony has of course been introduced to us in Julius Caesar, and it’s enormously satisfying to the see the two plays run back-to-back, not least because it allows us to see the absolute contrast between his brilliant statesmanship in Rome and the tragic effects of his ruination in Egypt.

What’s especially great about this performance is that Mark Antony, played by Hans Kesting is in a wheelchair throughout. Apparently this wasn’t intentional. Last Friday, Kesting just broke his leg. However, the very fact of his being in a wheelchair really galvanises his portrayal. That it is a constant through both JC and A&C means that we don’t have to view it through the prism of any sort of intended naturalism, but instead, it’s just a very actual constraint continually being negotiated. As a metaphor for Mark Antony’s frustration and political hamperedness in the first and his, well, differently sourced political frustration in the second, it is hard to beat. He tears around the set, angrily unable to do exactly what he wants to do, with a savage energy jabbing at flunkeys with his crutches.

Chris Nietvelt as Cleopatra (female, don’t worry, it’s not *that* radical a production) is also outstanding. The stripped down version of the play’s text and structure does away with a lot of the speechified contextualising and instead gets straight down to business. Antony, lounging around in Egypt, is told of his wife Fulvia’s death. He whizzes back to Rome and promptly marries his co-Triumvir Octavius’s sister Octavia (Octavius, strangely, is played by a woman, however – and while not distracting from the story if the thing is modernised, then sure, why not have female leaders? But it does make it difficult to know which “sister” is being talked about sometimes). Cleopatra sits at home and doesn’t take the news at all well, and then all hell breaks loose when Mark Antony does return to Egypt.

While the preceding four hours or so have continually felt fresh and inventive, this climax to the cycle feels by far the most detailed. Octavia is presented as a sexy, rich-looking opportunist, while Nietvelt’s Cleopatra is infinitely more desirable precisely because of the force of her personality. There are nice directorial touches: Egypt’s flagrant, bisexualised licentiousness; a Roman messenger stealing a kiss from the stricken Cleopatra; and, at the very close, an actual snake, filmed close-up as it is handled by Cleopatra, its image filling the large video screen to deeply unsettling effect.

But it is the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra that really keeps you nailed to your seat (for the last hour, the audience are all returned to their seats and the emptied stage feels newly sombre – you feel that the end is coming). The stripping away of their more flowery language, perversely, allows them to demonstrate the way in which they cannot live without each other more physically. Stripped of ornate words, there’s just this savage passion. At the same time, you can see why everyone in Rome despairs of Antony. It is sheer idiocy. He might well be in love, but that doesn’t make him any the less of an idiot for allowing it to rule his decisions. Antony and Cleopatra’s decisions once at war can clearly be seen as the actions of two people whose belief in their love makes them feel invulnerable to the whole world and to logic. It is a damning indictment. And yet – rarely for this play – you find yourself compelled by their belief. Wanting them to defy the history books and somehow win the day. And yet, being lovers, even their deaths are a slightly farcical joke. Cleopatra gets a servant to tell Antony that she’s dead just to discover his reaction. His reaction is, of course, suicide. And so, when the two lovers are reunited, it is with the bitter irony that Antony has but a few minutes to live. His death, like the others before him, is portrayed with the trolley and the bird’s-eye-view photo. However, Cleopatra’s devastated scream is the first thing that really brings home the pain that death has on others. Her eventual suicide, long minutes later, is utterly devastating. The whole thing felt absolutely electric.

It’s hard to sum up six hours worth of theatre experienced in such conditions and the end of Antony and Cleopatra was such that left me feeling like my heart had been run through a wringer, quite genuinely shaken. This is a quite extraordinary performance, running from brilliant intellectual insight to raw emotion. Some of the most outstanding Shakespeare I’ve ever seen.


Alex Chisholm said...

Thanks for this Andrew - I've been a huge fan of Ivo von Hove when he was with Zuidelijk Toneelgroep and now with Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Would loved to hav seen this but at 9 months pregnant it would have given a new edge of reality with the possibility of going into labour on stage. However, being able to read about it (nearly) makes up for missing the show.

Fred G said...

Thanks for a great critique of a show stuffed so full of content that I think it demands forensic examination. The wheelchair-bound Antony was really extraordinary.