November 21, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Roman Tragedies (Toneelgroep Amsterdam) @ The Barbican

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A six hour version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra stitched together. With no interval. In promenade. In Dutch with surtitles. It’s been a while since I’ve subjected myself to a Shakespearean endurance test (The Histories), and this was the kind of hardcore event which doesn’t come around very often. Happily, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s first visit to the UK in ten years was one to be enjoyed rather than endured, an intelligent and exciting reworking of these three plays that forced one to confront our changing attitudes to the stories that matter.

It’s a rather difficult event to review, as everyone who went would have had an entirely different experience. For the majority of the afternoon/evening, audience members were invited to wander freely around the auditorium and onto the stage, watching the action from any number of vantage points. Thus, while it was possible to watch the production ‘normally’ from the auditorium, most of us spent long periods promenading among the actors.

The stage and set-up require some explanation. These were the corridors of power, like the back rooms at the UN. Comfortable sofas, pot plants and coffee tables were complemented by coffee bars, a running buffet, an internet cafe and newspaper stands, among which both cast and audience spent their evenings. We were actively encouraged to check our e-mail, to grab a paper, to sit down with a meal or a glass of wine; there were no breaks among which we might do so communally, and events were continuous apart from short breaks for scene changes. We were not expected to ‘watch’ everything that happened; rather, we were encouraged to take control over our own experience, to choose what we wanted to watch.

Almost all of the action was filmed by a variety of fixed and mobile cameras, the political events being edited live for TV. Some reports were delivered by ‘anchors’ from a newsdesk at the back of the stage, others were staged for television such as a live debate between Coriolanus, Menenius and the Tribunes, or Brutus and Antony’s orations, while other action was caught on handhold cameras with the characters apparently unaware. This filmed footage was screened both above the stage for those in the auditorium (essential on a deep stage with many compartmentalised seating areas, where the action wasn’t always visible), and onto a number of televisions grouped around the stage. It was thus possible to select a sofa and essentially sit watching television for the evening, enjoying politics as mediated by the television cameras.

The result of all this was to recast the events of ancient Rome as modern day news events, with the audience placing a similar kind of value on them. While many of the audience deliberately ensured they made their way back to the auditorium for the ‘live’ experience of Brutus and Antony’s addresses to the people, for example, I caught the whole thing on television. In the corner of my eye, meanwhile, another screen showed clips of Barack Obama giving speeches, instantly recasting what I was watching as a worldwide broadcast, an intensely intimate, yet live, television event that communicated personally what was experienced massively by the audience in the auditorium.

The cameras were used to great effect throughout, highlighting tiny details that could not have been communicated without them: the intense eyes of Coriolanus as he hid his face from his mother; the frozen scream of Cleopatra as she prepared to send word of her death to Antony; the hidden expressions of Portia as she buried her face in her pillow. The cast were liberated to perform in a variety of keys; both grandstanding performances to the seated audience, and ‘private’ moments that the camera took responsibility for distributing. It also allowed for more virtuoso effects: the ghost of Caesar, for example, was superimposed only on the broadcast picture, with the live Brutus talking to an empty chair; and Enobarbus’ flight from his own guilt took him out of the Barbican and into the car-park, where his screams caused some consternation to the catering staff on a cigarette break, the whole thing captured on the roving camera and relayed back to the auditorium.

The production was insistent on displaying to us history in its many and varied forms, in keeping with the idea of this history as a real and living one, rather than one author’s idea of the past. Thus, while Shakespeare’s action shaped the body of the plot, a ticker-tape reel countered the stage story with running commentary on the ‘real’ history, with dates of battles and deaths, explanations of the political shifts and roles of various officials, and further details that Shakespeare ignored in the plays. As the play ended, a long list of questions: "Is the ideal of democracy worth the sacrifice of an individual?" "Can tyranny be justified?" etc. scrolled across the screen, asking us to consider history as a battle of ideologies. Other screens displayed relevant newsreels throughout, whether accompanying the campaign against Aufidius with footage of the Afghan war or displaying the Olympics while Caesar’s Rome celebrated the Lupercal, imagining history as a series of events endlessly repeated. To complicate matters even further, the news ticker also displayed information such as "150 minutes until Julius Caesar’s death" for the key characters, emphasising the inevitability of history: the interest here was not in what happens, but in how we get there.

In director Ivo van Hove’s Rome, history became something that was created privately and domestically rather than publicly. All scenes which gave the masses a voice were cut, and increasingly the focus of events was narrowed and humanised. Thus, Coriolanus was fragmented and heavily cut. The Tribunes emerged from the audience, speaking ostensibly on our behalf though far more obviously for themselves. The longest, core scene was performed as a press conference, with a chafing Coriolanus (Fedja van Huet) soothed by Menenius at one end of the table and attacked by Sicinius and Brutus at the other for disrespect to the people. In between the two groups sat Cominius and a Senator, attempting to maintain order over the physical fights which continually erupted, the overturned chairs and angry threats of an impassioned political debate that resulted, ultimately, in Coriolanus’ banishment. These public scenes were contrasted with the dominant Fried Pittoors as Volumnia, who held state in a raised seated section from which she rarely moved. To her, in this private setting, flocked senators, rulers and her son, and it was in her presence that the real decisions were made. Pittoors’ commanding presence made her plea to Coriolanus, a fixed bow from the waist from which she refused to raise herself, all the more compelling. van Huet’s performance, meanwhile, turned the story of Coriolanus into one of a reluctant public figure, a hero forced to play a game he does not understand and with which he bore no patience. As he agonised over his decision to sack Rome, the cameras captured a haunted, confused gaze which spoke of a man completely lost.

Julius Caesar, for my money the best part of the production, gave a fuller text which happily trimmed the final scenes mercilessly, turning the play into a lean and thrilling descent into chaos. The only real public scene here was one of the production’s highlights; Brutus first addressing the audience from a podium in a commanding performance, before Antony’s far more informal engagement. An accident had confined actor Hans Kesting to a wheelchair, but this only made him the more compelling: as he rolled around the stage with surprising speed and agility, Antony’s apparent disability only belied the danger he posed. Rolling around to the front of a podium he could not see over, and forcing the fixed state camera to yield to a handheld, unmediated broadcast, Antony addressed himself to the camera as much as the crowd, pulling out an image of Caesar and scrawling over it with red pen as he described the wounds. As he spoke, the conspirators who stood in a line behind him slowly sidled away and made their exit, whispering in a corner until an enraged Antony wheeled and made a beeline straight for Brutus, onto whom he launched himself in an attempt to throttle the murderer. In the absence of a performed crowd for Antony to play to, Kesting conveyed the power of revolution in words that demonstrated the power of the camera to turn a close-up into a seismic shift in world order.

Several characters were recast as female, as part of van Hove’s mission to turn the events into a relatively realistic reflection of contemporary politics. Octavius and Cassius were both women, and this made for a fascinating dynamic between Renee Fokker’s Cassius and Roeland Fernhout’s Brutus. Cassius here became a powerful yet frustrated politician, unable to enact events on her own terms and reliant on Brutus for the necessary support to carry through her actions. Fernhout’s reflective Brutus was matched for power by her sheer determination, and the two of them were intimidating when together, and terrifying when opposed. As the two of them quarrelled in a dim office, late at night, Brutus was here rendered far from stoic; a tired and emotional man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who screamed defiance at Cassius’ questioning of his commands. The relative equality of the two was revealed in an almost tender farewell as the two parted for the last time.

Antony and Cleopatra cranked up the intensity and domesticity a further notch, with a comparatively full text that ran to two and a half hours by itself. Split into two halves, and with the audience forced to return to the auditorium for the second half, this was the part of the play that we were required to watch, to experience as a unified group without the distractions offered on stage. For this world, presided over by Chris Nietvelt’s Cleopatra and Marieke Heebink’s highly-sexualised Charmian, politics moved into the bedroom. Charmian ran Cleopatra’s court with a disturbing combination of seduction (especially of other women) and devil-may-care pragmatism; as they waited for Octavius to arrive, she marched for a champagne bottle as if it was a necessary weapon. Hadewych Minis’s Octavius offered a stark contrast, her white shirt and tie belying a puritanical and sparse personality that accepted events with a sense of inevitably and necessity. Upon giving away Octavia, she kissed her sister tenderly, then with increased passion. This one moment of emotional urgency was instantly cut into by Charmian’s distant cries for "Music!" before, to the eruption of the Red Hot Chili Peppers onto the video screens, the scene cut to a wild orgy in Egypt as Cleopatra and her ladies thrashed about on the floor to the loud rock tunes.

The final scenes, captured closely by the cameras, were played out in full as Cleopatra and her ladies followed the deaths of Antony and prepared themselves for the inevitable. Centrally in the stage was an area into which, almost superstitiously, audience members were instructed not to go. Between two glass screens stood an empty space which symbolised death; every time a character was murdered or committed suicide, they moved to that space and lay down on a trolley, and an overhead snapshot of their ‘body’ was taken and displayed, frozen, on the video screens. As this space increasingly became the focus, the characters were uncontrollably drawn to it, surrounding Antony’s body which lay splayed out. As the space became laden with bodies, Octavia sent first aid teams to resuscitate the fallen, but to no avail. The history of Rome, with all its scale and worldwide ramificaitons, ultimately ended up figured in the four dead bodies that filled this empty space.

History was too big for this production, just as the production was too big for this review. This was, perhaps, the production’s greatest strength – its recognition that history is best realised through the all-too-human stories of individuals, through the representative rather than the comprehensive. In this, the production was possibly the most Shakespearean history I’ve yet seen. There’s far more that could have been discussed: the wonderful chaotic drumming that stood for the various wars; the hysterically floozy Casca; the tenderness of the mirrored Caesar/Calphurnia and Brutus/Portia scenes; the homely picture of Antony lying across Octavia’s lap and her disgraced return to Rome; the traumatic effect that Coriolanus’ final fall had on Aufidius. Perhaps it’s enough to say that this was the only production this year to which I’ve yet given a standing ovation. A beautifully performed, expertly produced and deeply provoking reading of the Roman histories which really demands repeat experiences.

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