Review: Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“A people who can neither rule nor be ruled”

8 years ago, I’d barely started to blog, I didn’t know who Ivo van Hove was, Andrew Haydon didn’t know who I was, it was an altogether simpler time. And I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what it was that made me click on the Barbican’s website to book for a 6 hour long Shakespearean epic in Dutch but I’m glad I did, for it genuinely changed the world for me (in terms of my theatrical life anyway, who knew I’d start going to Amsterdam regularly for theatre!). I ranked the show as the best of the year for me back then in 2009 and I have to say I still think it is the greatest piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.

So going back for seconds was always going to be a risk but it was also something I knew I’d never be able to resist. Not least because in the intervening period, van Hove has become one of the most famous, and arguably influential, directors around. His take on A View From The Bridge was the breakthrough moment but for me, it has been his work with Toneelgroep Amsterdam that has consistently been the most revelatory – Kings of War and Scenes from a Marriage both at the Barbican, Long Day’s Journey into Night and the breathtaking Maria Stuart at the gorgeous Stadsschouwburg.

But I digress. Roman Tragedies conflates Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra into a single free-flowing drama, with short pauses inserted rather than lengthy intervals, designed to allow the audience to move around the theatre to watch the show from different places, even from on the stage itself. Together with long-term design collaborator Jan Versweyveld, van Hove has proved masterful at challenging traditional uses of theatrical spaces and as we’re encouraged to take pics and livetweet, there’s something wonderfully subversive about it all (perhaps it’s the knowledge that it is pissing David Hare off so much…).

And lest you think this is all just a gimmick, the adaptation by Alexander Schreuder, Bart Van den Eynde, and Jan Peter Gerrits from Tom Kleijn’s translation is fiercely intelligent as ancient history blurs into contemporary politics, the exploration of ever-shifting power dynamics and the performative hollowness of politics feel like it could have been ripped from today’s front pages (well, perhaps not the Evening Standard’s…). Intuitive cross-gender casting (Marieke Heebink’s fierce Cassius, Maria Kraakman’s possible hope for the future in Octavius Caesar) puts masculinity-in-crisis under the spotlight and the very nature of democracy being questioned could not be more pertinent if it tried. That it still feels so relevant is all the more surprising considering that this adaptation is now more than 10 years old, but it is still so radical (to UK theatre audiences at least) a take on Shakespeare that it can’t help but feel vibrant and vital.

You see it in the influence he’s had on the likes of directors Robert Icke, Joe Hill-Gibbins, and Jeff James (whose Persuasion I am inordinately looking forward to), that influence that got Hare so frit. And yet for all the live video and live snakes, the scrolling text alerts and ticking countdowns, you can’t believe that he could sit unmoved through the final hour or so, deep in Antony and Cleopatra territory, when Hans Kesting and Chris Nietvelt deliver the kind of performances that simply transcend any notion of ‘classic’ theatre. You forget that you’ve been watching this company for nearly six hours and get filled with the kind of exhilaration that is all too rare in the theatre.

Running time: 6 hours (with several short pauses)
Photos: Jan Versweyveld 
Booking until 20th March

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