March 03, 2014

Thoroughly modern classic Rome

Adelaide Festival

Roman Tragedies
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Bart van den Eynde, Jan Peter Gerrits,
and Alexander Schreuder
Translated by Tom Kleijn
Toneelgroep Amsterdam
Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre.
Duration 5 hours 45 minutes
March 1. Until March 2.

We are well used to up-dated reinterpretations of Shakespeare; they have long been the new orthodoxy. But Roman Tragedies, from Netherlands company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, is as current as breaking news and infinitely more penetrating. Director Ivo van Hove has not simply given a modern spin to Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, he has revealed them with such thematic intelligence and theatrical invention that the result is breathtaking.

Designed by Jan Versweyveld, the Festival Theatre stage is set like a hotel foyer with its own television studio. Low set divans in neutral tones are interspersed with raised wooden platforms for performers, while large suspended lampshades provide much of the stage light. Some of the divan space is for actors but most is for the several hundred audience members invited to watch the players at close quarters, either directly, or through the many monitors, including the huge proscenium screen, providing live video feed and surtitles.

This production suspends much of the usual stage etiquette. The audience is invited to tweet messages, buy drinks on stage, and come and go from the performance at any time. When there are short breaks to prepare new scenes, we are told exact times to return. These brief refresher stops are sufficient to continue the almost six hour marathon effortlessly. It is rather like binge TV watching – eight straight episodes of Borgen or a whole series of House of Cards.

The text in translation quotes from Shakespeare, and though modernized is not idiomatic. Battle scenes are presented as blitzkriegs of percussion while a red LED news crawl text informs us of details, strategic gains and ominously predicts the time of death of central characters. Speeches are given as news conferences or studio crosses to anchors. The video cameras pan the action constantly, identifying actors and narrative shifts, but they do not diminish the sense of live performance.

There are too many player highlights to include here, but Gijs Scholten van Aschat as the autocrat Coriolanus disdaining the citizenry is grimly familiar, and the oedipal scenes with his mother Volumnia (Frieda Pittoors) are chilling. In Julius Caesar, Alwin Pulinckz is outstanding as Brutus, the honest man who joins a conspiracy that becomes toxic. But the towering performance is Hans Kesting as Mark Antony, commanding in the “Friends Romans…” speech in honour of Caesar, and then, throughout the final two hours, in enmeshed, heroic folly with Cleopatra, mesmerically played by Chris Nietvelt.

Some theatre is so impressive it becomes a benchmark for everything else we see, Roman Tragedies is such a production.

Murray Bramwell

“Thoroughly modern classic Rome” The Australian, March 3, 2014, p.12.

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