The jagged concrete outline of the Barbican Centre, in all its brutalist glory, lends itself fittingly to my mood as I enter – it is hard not to wince, at least subconsciously, at the prospect of six hours of Shakespearean text to be performed sequentially and without interval, in a language you do not speak. I approached the play with limited knowledge of the texts to be performed (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Anthony and Cleopatra) or the production itself, and expectations of a gruelling and tiring spectacle.
I could not have been more wrong.
Roman Tragedies had me gripped throughout its entire marathon in a way that many shorter, flashier plays have failed to do.
Oppressively loud noise and bright strobes initiate the day’s proceedings: it is a motif Van Hove will use repeatedly throughout the plays to indicate war. Side-scrolling headlines tell us all we need to know: General Caius Marcius has inflicted defeat upon Rome’s bitter arch enemy, and in doing so, earned the nick-name “Coriolanus” – but has returned to Rome deeply unpopular after refusing to distribute grain stores to her starving citizens. It is a useful storytelling device that gives the effect of a war both distant and violent and helps thrust the play into its 21st century setting, but unfortunately is sufficiently physically painful in its execution that it distracts from the subtitles and action on stage.
The production frequently finds itself using such devices to progress the plot as stand-ins for vast swathes of text that have been cut to bring the production down to time. The team’s edits are as smart as they are brutal: every scene involving a plebeian has been removed in its entirety, leaving the focus squarely on the political manoeuvring and backroom deals of the patricians and elites, and relegating riots, wars and civil commotion (of which there is a great deal) down to implication and reference.
There is an occasional stand-in for the “stinking masses” of Rome: the audience itself, who for much of the play are invited to sit onstage amidst the action and act as (mostly) silent observers. During the scene changes you can wander around, get drinks at the onstage bar and even chat with the actors. It is a gambit that was often deeply contradictory: it brought us closer to the very real conflicts and relationships that drive the plays and yet also exposed us to their contrived and theatrical nature; it treated the (mostly affluent, well dressed) audience as the uninformed, uneducated masses, and yet elevated them above that to the role of participants. The production revelled in this duality, and worked well around the volatility and hiccups that it caused. As the recently-deceased Julius Caesar remarked to me in one of the intermissions: “The audience helps create the art”.
the great ebb and flow of energy, intensity and pacing that defined such a long performance; neither jumpy nor stagnant, but brilliantly controlled throughout
Sitting on stage proved engaging – when you could see the action. However, it was often obscured and you were left to watch one of the many subtitled screens scattered around the stage – to which several different cameras broadcast live-edited footage of the play. I spent much of the play watching screens – for the subtitles, but also for the excellent quality of cinematography and editing. The use of intimate close-ups, and split-screen angles during overlapping dialogues meant that the footage was more than just a visual aide.
The screens also served a secondary purpose. Some screens showed a variety of other footage (music videos, news clips, excerpts from films, etc.) which served to reinforce the setting and period and complement key themes. This largely worked well, though occasionally bordered on trite – a Trump press conference played during Brutus’ address proving particularly on the nose.
All these technical elements led to information overload at points. Oppressive sound and lighting, overlapping scenes and dialogue, several sets of subtitles and multiple different displays left the audience unsure where to look and gave important scenes a lack of focus. While no doubt intended as a comment on modern media culture, this, combined with a handful of technical glitches throughout, occasionally caused confusion. Nonetheless, it is a small blemish on otherwise excellent technical production.
For all its flashy technology and Brechtian innovation, the true beating heart of this production was its fundamentals. Gripping performances and astute direction deserve the most credit for keeping an audience’s undivided attention throughout a series of challenging texts.
Van Hove proves a master of pacing. The play builds initially from a slow post-war decorum to a frantic political frenzy, and just as this reaches a climax, with Coriolanus exiled from Rome, we are drawn into a tense, terse meeting of two great rivals where every word is placed with precision and deliberation. Bart Slegers, playing Coriolanus’ blood rival Tullus Aufidius, speaks slowly and with great weight throughout and yet conjures a performance of great sorrow, fury, and ambition. This began the great ebb and flow of energy, intensity and pacing that defined such a long performance; neither jumpy nor stagnant, but brilliantly controlled throughout.
It is a brilliant, untethered performance that suddenly puts the restraint of the preceding hours into context, and melds the three disjoint plays into one satisfying arc.
Control is a key success of this production. I was initially disappointed by the first death of the proceedings. We are told at the first intermission that Coriolanus will die in 95 minutes – and from that moment, events and tension build towards their inexorable tragic conclusion. As the audience see the clock count down, anticipation grows as the first play moves towards a climax, and then, after a thrilling cliff-hanger and a short intermission – anti-climax.
Coriolanus dies with no blood, no violence, and no ceremony. His body is photographed on a slab to blanketing white noise. After this, death after death passed with minimal observance, and it is not until the final act of the final play that this comes to a remarkable conclusion. Here, the play finds its climax. Beginning in the raw sexual chemistry of the eponymous pair, fuelled by well-timed injections of humour before the slow, agonising death of Mark Antony, we reach Cleopatra’s suicide, an event we have been warned of more than five hours beforehand. It is a brilliant, untethered performance that suddenly puts the restraint of the preceding hours into context, and melds the three disjoint plays into one satisfying arc.
The play is not without its flaws, but technical hiccups, problems with gendered casting, and the bizarre, possibly ironic use of Bob Dylan music were swept away in the face of an otherwise excellent show, aided by a wholehearted embrace of the meta-theatrical that allowed small errors to be easily masked. The translation too helped bring these plays to the modern day: gone is much of Shakespeare’s archaic vocabulary, hidden behind the veneer of a language much of the audience does not understand.
I walked out of the Barbican a far cry from the mood I had entered in. Roman Tragedies is a true theatrical achievement, delivered with shrewd gusto and impeccable technique. I saw six hours of Dutch Shakespeare, and left wanting more.
Roman Tragedies plays at the Barbican until the 19th March.
Image: Jan Versweyveld