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When in Rome... 

Roman Tragedies
based on William Shakespeare
directed by Ivo van Hove
Barbican Theatre

Politics can be murder. In the current climate of Brexit and Trump, we’ve seen first hand the effects of politics on the ‘people’, two camps, two sides, two stories and no real winners. Placards in hands, petitions, riots, uprisings we have a voice and we want it heard (even if we don’t get what we want). The Toneelgroep’s spectacular 6-hour epic, Roman Tragedies, is about neither but oh does it speak to the people!

Three of the Roman plays of Shakespeare’s arsenal are played out back to back - set chronologically by their timelines rather than when they were written - in what feels like a large television studio, equipped with backstage area, make-up, conference tables and refreshment stands. The set is vast and deep and either side are two musicians equipped with everything from drums of war to some more eerie electrical items. Jan Versweyveld has superbly envisioned the full working world of the modern day politician, and with cameras and microphones everywhere, brazenly on show, there is absolutely nowhere to hide. On top of all of this the audience are free to roam everywhere, literally, from the auditorium to the stage to the wings, we are part of the performance - after all these politicians are fighting for ‘us’. It’s our lives that are the ones that are truly being affected and we get to watch it all happen on big 24-inch colour TV screens. When hero and warrior Coriolanus is banished and returns with an army and hell-fire fury who pays the price?. When Julius Caesar is murdered, Brutus and Antonius stand on the steps and before bloody battle ensues  who do they petition? When the Roman Triumvirate is shattered and brought under one rule who suffers the most? Friends, Romans, Countrymen…. Ah you get the point. This is theatre at its most honest, it’s most open and it is up close and personal. Along the bottom of each screen and across the entire pros arch are subtitles (oh yeah, the whole thing is in Dutch) and ticker-tape, like the 24hr news we’re constantly reminded of the going ons in this world, be it important information about the allegiances being made and broken in the empire, or synopsis on who’s winning what battle or simply the how many minutes till Caesar snuffs it, we’re constantly updated with every detail. So I guess the question for the voyeur now is down on the streets or sat on the sofa – how do you like to watch your world burn?

The ensemble are phenomenal, truly exquisite, their collective understanding of the text and the style in which each piece is told is exemplary. I would start listing the performers here by name but it would be wrong to not mention them all. It’s as a collective where they thrive and the energy and commitment that it takes to maintain such a show means it’s the highest praise I can give to speak of them as an ensemble. We are in very, very safe hands. Coriolanus and Julius Caesar are much more condensed and of similar styles, setting up the rules of the space, and of things to come. Sicinius and Brutus brilliantly arriving from the audience and then as Mark Anthony addressing a 360 auditorium with his speech at Caesar’s funeral. It was here that almost magically the audience truly began to get comfortable with the devise, as Anthony stood inciting rebellion and uprising members of the audience began to shout back (was this call and response?), one chap walked straight across the stage to regain his seat and finally a selfie taken with Caesar’s corpse. The theatrical purist in me winced at each of these moments, but then this was the world that Ivo van Hove had created and morbidly it was a startling reflection of the '21st century people’ and we were playing our part perfectly.


By Anthony and Cleopatra the style has shifted quite dramatically, it’s become almost comic and raunchy – we’re no longer in Rome I guess anymore, and maybe Egypt is a little too risqué? – it’s also 2 and half hours and it feels like the big finale. Still able to roam freely, we’re now entertained by Britney Spears MVs and at one point the whole audience, players and all are treated to Red Hot Chilli Peppers "Hump De Bump" equipped with the lyrics to sing along. For the last hour we're asked to return to our seats to watch the events of Anthony’s unyielding lust for Cleopatra play out - them left alone privately locked away in their tombs where we the people would never dare venture - and if you didn’t already know how that one ends (spoiler alert) a lot of people die – oh, and there’s a snake.

To give the feast all it’s trimmings all 6 hours are perfectly accompanied throughout with live music, be it rubbing wood on large drum hides to create a scratchy suspense, or the literal banging of the drums of war during the battle scenes (There are 5 wars throughout the evening) we are never left alone in silence until the very, very end. 

Ok so I’ve gushed, I can’t help but be bowled over by the whole experience – a little in awe. There are, however, moments where the action lagged, I guess in 6 hours it’d be impossible not to, and many moments where I simply drifted in and out. There's almost so much going on that it's hard to really pin down if this was an exercise in experimental and innovative theatrical story telling, a parody of modern/ancient politics or an attempt at making the audience literally the people of Rome and asking us to ‘feel’ what the romans would’ve felt? Each work in their own merit, excel in fact. Still, it’s difficult to see if they actually blend seamlessly together. There were moments where more modern history was peppered on the TV’s on stage, some of the Iraq war, the ISIS saga and then some Donald Trump. It was the Trump that got me thinking as in 2009 in the early imagining of this show he wouldn’t have been on the radar – nor in the production, so what purpose does he serve to the storytelling now? Was he just a visual representation to the more liberal of us or just a reminder that with great power comes great responsibility? With so much already going on little Trump-like red herrings are a distraction and that this production is so much more than some cheap cultural references. Nonetheless, Ivan van Hove and his team have done something wonderful. There are times in theatre when we give kudos to the idea, to the attempt and this is certainly one of theatre’s success stories. 


Eric Caldwell

photos | ©Jan Versweyveld

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