look: roman tragedies

So thanks to my wonderful, culturally savvy compadre Susan, I was lucky enough to go to the mind-blowing Roman Tragedies at BAM last night: a spectacular six-hour production of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, staged by Toneelgroep Amsterdam and the director Ivo van Hove. Yes that’s right. Six hours. In Dutch.




We went for wine and cheese first at the lovely Stonehome, then figured we would cut in and out, see maybe a couple of hours at most. We got there about 7.30, just in time for Coriolanus’s death, and stayed the rest of the night, and came out wondering if it would be crazy to try to come back tomorrow to catch what we’d missed. The audience was allowed to move around the auditorium and up onstage, and to watch the action on any one of thirty-odd television screens parked around the stage. There were two bars set up selling drinks and snacks, a line of MacBooks set up for anyone who wanted to tweet about the production, or perhaps just check their email, and on the other side, a backstage jumble of dressing-room mirror and makeup had spilled onto the stage.

The actors, when not required, stood around at the edges of the stage drinking beer and mingling with the audience. The aesthetic was very grey and corporate – the actors were in business suits, and Octavius and Brutus planned their opposing battle strategies on clear glass whiteboards in the center of the stage. These two parallel glass walls enclosed the area that became the grave of the heroes in succession; their deaths were marked by a switch in the video feed from a roving camera to a fixed, overhead, grainy surveillance image, and (seen from the auditorium) a red news ticker announcing the dates of their birth and death. There was really chilling about that effect – the discoloration, the impression that it’s a stolen image: Saddam in his bunker or Ghaddafi’s body.

For the last hour, everyone moved to the auditorium and the final scenes of Antony and Cleopatra were played out on stage across the square, airport-lounge configurations of furniture, with screens in the background showing boxing or music videos or at one point, NBC’s Olympic coverage. Caska, Cassius, and Octavius were played by women, without any particular comment; Octavius – a very still, elegant figure, her blonde hair swept up in a bun – made a particularly powerful villain, serenely unaffected by the violence she had her lackeys inflict on the other side of the stage. Enobarbus delivered his last speech to the passers-by on Flatbush Avenue outside the theatre, pursued by the cameraman, before committing suicide by sprinting back inside and headlong into the death-chamber at the center of the stage. I can’t imagine what the locals made of this impassioned man in a business suit screaming his betrayal to the uncaring traffic. In Dutch.

For an experimental production like this, in which the cast during the curtain call was outnumbered about three to one by the crew (including the live snake-wrangler), you might expect that the production would take priority over the acting, that the actors would merely be energetic and passable, and that lines delivered in Dutch wouldn’t have much resonance anyway. But no – the actors were mesmerizing, especially Brutus, Antony, and Cleopatra, and I would have watched them perform the plays on a bare set. There are parallels with the other popular immersive-Shakespeare experience in town, Sleep No More, but I found this to be the more absorbing and wrenching production; nothing felt like a gimmick, and the set dressing was only there to serve the play. I’m sure this was a grueling, expensive, absurdly ambitious show to mount, but I wish the run could be longer. I want to know what happened to Coriolanus.



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