It’s not an immediately obvious choice, but as the intrigue, ambition and personality politics (shown against clips of conflict zones and Donald Trump) climb to increasingly dizzy heights, the contemporary relevance becomes achingly apparent.
All this before even mentioning the most subversive element of this production: that audience members can wander freely around the performance space, live-tweeting as they go, taking on the role of ordinary citizens and watching the political convulsions unfold on television screens.
It isn't just the audience that breaks out of its usual space, either. The bar, the information desk and even the make-up room are all onstage. Actors converse between the stage and auditorium. A visible cameraman documents every facial expression in intrusive detail. Pushing the boundaries of the performance space in this way adds to the overarching sense that our own political reality is as theatrical as the play.
The casting is magisterial. Gijs Scholten van Aschat makes a grizzled, iron-hard Coriolanus who terrifies with quicksilver shifts between subdued cooperation and blazing rage. Chris Nietvelt is similarly mercurial as Cleopatra, swinging between almost maniacal sensuality and bitter, consuming paranoia.
The contrast between the excesses of her relationship with Hans Kesting’s Mark Antony on the one hand, and the stark, emotionless austerity of Maria Kraakman as Octavian on the other, symbolises the cataclysmic ideological conflict; even the lighting temperature changes when Kraakman enters. Small parts, too, such as Portia and Octavia, benefit from thoughtful casting: Hélène Devos brings tremulous emotion to marginal characters who could too easily be overlooked.
Catering for an onstage audience has some shortcomings: the projected surtitles were obscured by lampshades and lighting rigs, while onscreen, the white subtitle text occasionally appeared against white backgrounds. One or two of the real-world intrusions felt jarring rather than immersive, such as the actor who swept past smelling of cigarette smoke, or the unfortunate lady presented with Mark Antony’s bottom in her face when he propped himself up nearby.
Encounters with bewildered bystanders were problematic too, such as when the camera followed Enobarbus’s raving flight from the theatre and encountered a binman, making hilarious what should have been a tragic soul-searching soliloquy. Moments like this tended to break the spell.
Even so, there were also plenty of audience interactions that enhanced entire scenes. Mark Antony dealing with a heckler during his speech at Caesar’s funeral gave a pleasing sense of the demagogue working the crowd, while onstage, it was deeply unsettling to be a bystander as the characters who had just murdered Julius Caesar strode straight past.
Ivo van Hove and the Toneelgroep Amsterdam have undoubtedly created something unforgettable. After six hours, the full house still had the energy for a tumultuous standing ovation. By the end, yes, you are exhausted. But as the timeless political questions roll like credits up the projector screen, accompanied by strains of Bob Dylan, you might just find yourself struggling, in this day and age, to imagine the Roman plays staged any other way.
|What||Ivo van Hove's Roman Tragedies, Barbican Theatre|
Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS | MAP
|Nearest tube||Barbican (underground)|
17 Mar 17 – 19 Mar 17, 4:00 PM – 10:00 PM