Yesterday I attended one of the best theatrical experiences of my life – Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedies at the Barbican by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, directed by Ivo van Hove. In the last couple of weeks I’d already seen the first two instalments of the RSC’s Rome season – Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Both were good performances, classic dress with a range of intelligent performances and an impressive stage design.
But Roman Tragedies was something else entirely. The concept is to compress Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra together, for a performance that lasts six hours. There are several short breaks of three to five minutes, and one of ten minutes. It is in Dutch, with surtitles in English. It sounds brutal, but it wasn’t, and the time went by quickly. I only started to get tired in the last long act of Antony and Cleopatra, but that was far more to do with me than the performance.
This was a revival of a 2009 production, which I’d missed but of which I’d heard great things. The same group did Kings of War at the Barbican last year – Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III – which I’d really liked (some thoughts here). It was only on for three nights this time, and I’m glad I got to see it.
It was an outstanding evening – the quickest, spontaneous standing ovation I’ve been part of. Many highlights, but Hans Kesting’s Antony was excellent, especially in Julius Caesar. Bart Slegers was very good in two supporting roles as Aufidius and Enobarbus. Enobarbus ran outside the theatre at one point, into the service road outside the Barbican – handheld camera followed and the feed came back to the auditorium. I can imagine this works better on a less quiet street. Chris Nietvelt was a powerful Cleopatra; and there were several other excellent performances. Cassius and Octavius were both converted into female roles, which worked very well. The absence of the servant Lucius was an intriguing way into Brutus’ conflicted character; the use of video and music was excellent. Although the audience was encouraged to move about the theatre and join the actors on stage, I mainly stayed in the same place, in part because I had a good seat and I wanted to be able to see as much as possible – live action, video screen, surtitles, news feed – rather than have a restricted view. If I was to see it again, then I’d be more inclined to get closer; and if it was on again tonight, I’d be there.
Peter Kirwan has a much fuller review at The Bardathon – he saw the first run too, so compares the productions a little. Steve Mentz has a good discussion of the version he saw in Brooklyn at The Bookfish. There are mainstream reviews at The Stage and The Guardian.