by William Shakespeare translated by Tom Kleijn.
Barbican Theatre To 22 November 2009.
Runs 6hr No interval.
TICKETS: 0845 120 7550.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 20 November.
Epic in scope and ambition.
Don’t worry about the six hours. For much of the time audiences are encouraged to wander round, and sit on stage to watch the action, buy food and drink, read a paper or go online (computers provided). Or leave the auditorium for a time, maybe to use the lavatories. You might miss a few speeches, or maybe a major event. That’s life – presumably some New Yorkers had the curtains shut to watch the shopping channel when the Twin Towers were attacked.
The sweep of history is at the core of Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s abridged trio of Shakespearean Roman plays. And if being onstage means watching much of the action on the monitors spread around, well how do we find out most about the news, current affairs and the past these days? Despite a Barbican stage enlarged to accommodate sofas for spectators and characters, plus on-stage make-up (whoever appears in front of the cameras without being visually prepared these days?), a lot of the time the action’s played in small areas, often at the front.
Yet it’s not long before, even in the auditorium proper, we’re likely to be watching the enlarged screen images of characters rather than the actual performers onstage below.
History’s evident also in messages flashing digitally across the stage. Dramatic time – how many minutes before a major character dies – mixes with Roman history and breaking news of the day of performance. In this age of hurry, set changes are counted in seconds on monitors (lasting up to ten minutes, these also act as mini-breaks).
Most startling of the news devices is the sudden capturing of a dead body as a flash-photo’d newspaper image in agonised pose, with birth and death dates. No-one, you realise, lived into old age, and few into ripe middle-age, as the body-count moves from murder and execution to suicide.
Piercing the suited negotiations and conflicts, the TV interviews and craftily-angled news, the theatre of war becomes the theatricalisation of war. Human conflict is reduced to the after-effects of a few chastely-bandaged arms, as battle emerges in stroboscopic flashes and the drummed fury of the onstage Blindman Musicians.
This probably makes most of a mark in the Coriolanus section, where even Gaius Martius’ most resonant proclamations about banishing Rome and there being a world elsewhere are made with the quiet presentation of a TV broadcast, while he and his quondam enemy Aufidius talk, upon meeting, with heads bowed, in the quiet tones of muttered prayers.
But his mother’s pride is startlingly presented. Straight-backed at the start, she keeps her spine as rigid as she finally bends before him when pleading for Rome; in both cases her belief in martial values is evident. In Julius Caesar interior lives matter more, especially when Brutus debates with himself, incorporating his servant Lucius into himself (the most notable such Shakespearean appropriation since Jonathan Pryce’s Royal Court Hamlet interiorised his father’s ghost).
Some surprises may hit English audiences most. The decision to retranslate Tom Kleijn’s Dutch script, rather than give Shakespeare’s verse (where the script sticks to its source), keeps the focus on the action rather than the word, but it can produce some clanging echoes (“a woman without parallel” sounds flat beside “a lass unparalleled”).
Here, contrary to usual impressions, Brutus’ speech to the crowd after Caesar’s assassination seems like a smooth PR job while Mark Antony’s follow-up, – one of Shakespeare’s most deliberately manipulative speeches – becomes a heartfelt outpouring. Hans Kesting pauses an unbearable time, hardly able to bear the emotion he feels, before throwing his prepared script aside and eventually moving from the podium to use a hand-held mike, even dispensing with that for a time to speak directly to the crowd.
He produces not Caesar’s knife-stabbed coat, but a photo on which he marks the knife-wounds in blood-red felt-tip pen. It’s a remarkable performance, seeming no whit lessened by the wheelchair and crutches necessitated after the actor’s accident in Amsterdam.
Later, Kesting’s performance is matched by the volatile serpent of old Nile from Chris Nietvelt, and its opposite, Hadewych Minis’s Octavius (one of several power-roles played for the modern age by a woman). This sleek Octavius, a match for any man, pushes her poor sister Octavia around in bullying fashion, as if blaming her when Antony sends his marriage-of-political-convenience wife back home alone. All Octavia wants is a good time, and to look good in glossy lifestyle fashion.
Yet, ultimate victor though he is, Octavius finishes up viewed on camera as a frozen outsider, looking in on the love of Antony and Cleopatra, consummated in death – the first bodies to lie entwined rather than in twisted pain.
Antony and Cleopatra is the toughest section, the material itself less tractable to being treated as the sweep of history. When gently chiming music accompanies Enobarbus’ famous “Barge she sat in” speech the effect is atypically soft-focus. The all-pervasive sexiness of Cleopatra’s court sidelines it beside such hard-edged moments as Antony and Octavius sitting apart, on different sofas and projected on separate screens, while the ineffectual Lepidus is shown between them, central but silent and soon to disappear.
Overall, though, director Ivo van Hove and his company provide the kind of searingly fresh production, full of Shakespearean energy and ambition, which for this age, and in the context of modern theatre production, matches the Royal Shakespeare’s Company’s great achievements with the Histories, in the 1964 ‘Wars of the Roses’ and last year’s great Roundhouse tetralogies. Like them, this brief visit is a rare, unmissable event.
Cominius/Brutus/Lucius/Thidias: Roeland Fernhout.
Tribune/Cassius: Renée Fokker.
Menenius/Lepidus :Fred Goessens.
Virgilia/Calpurnia/Diomedes: Janni Goslinga.
1st Senator/Casca/Charmian: Marieke Heebink.
Coriolanus/Agrippa: Fedja van Huët.
Aufidius/Anchorman/Enobarbus: Chico Kenzari.
Anchorman/Cleopatra: Chris Nietvelt.
Volumnia/Iras: Frieda Pittoors.
Brutus: Alwin Pulinckz/Dolabella.
Sicinius/Decius/Ventidius: Eelco Smits.
Antony: Hans Kesting.
Julius Caesar/Proculeius: Hugo Koolschijn.
Octavius Caesar: Hadewych Minis.
Portia/Lucius/IOctavia: Karina Smulders.
Blindman Musicians: Ruben Cooman, Yves Goemaere, Ward de Ketelaere, Hannes Nieuwlaet.
Director: Ivo van Hove.
Designer/Lighting: Jan Versweyveld.
Music: Eric Sleichim.
Video: Tal Yarden.
Costume: Lies van Assche.
Hair/Make-up Roswitha Evenwel, David Verswijveren.
Dramaturgy: Bart van den Eynde, Jan Peter Gerrits, Alexander Schreuder.
Assistant director: Matthias Mooij.
Assistant designer: Ramón Huijbrechts.