Reviews West End & Central Published 27 March 2017

Review: Roman Tragedies at the Barbican

Barbican Theatre ⋄ 17 - 19 March 2017

Raw and new and believable: Rafaella Marcus and David Ralf team up to produce a long-form review of Ivo van Hove’s six-hour Roman Tragedies.

Rafaella Marcus and David Ralf
Roman Tragedies at the Barbican. Photo: Jan Versweyveld.

Roman Tragedies at the Barbican. Photo: Jan Versweyveld.


Rafaella Marcus: I think I felt most like I was preparing for a Duke of Edinburgh expedition beforehand: sensible shoes, bottle of water, essentials within easy reach. The actual show is much more audience friendly than anticipated: after the first seated half hour, there is the first of many ‘scene changes’ – not much actual scene changing is done but timers counting down 5-10 minute breaks give the audience a chance to move around, get up onto the stage and explore the conference centre/newsroom style labyrinth of sofas and screens, grab coffee or food from the onstage bars, charge their phones, hang out with Ivo who was seated looking inscrutable next to the make-up station, etc etc. It goes Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra: a historical order of events rather than the order of writing. This kind of set the tone for me as a statement about this production’s relationship with the text and maybe Text more generally: it’s a means to an end, which is the diametric opposite of How Brits Do Shakespeare, but a lot more on that later.

David Ralf: Further to presenting the plays in order, you’re given running updates on the wars via Wall Street-like rolling red LEDs. Van Hove talks about stripping out the war scenes early on in the process of creating Roman Tragedies, and these bulletins stand in their stead, but actually there’s a lot of geopolitical detail that’s included here that you’d never experience when watching any other production of the play, and these same details link the plays together – which states are being unified, who is victorious over whom, which regions are in turmoil, and which secure. It gives you the feeling of being on the receiving end of decades of journalism in a short burst: when we’re told that someone brings peace to a region we wonder whose titles these really are, and, by the end, I strongly suspected that we were being subjected to Caesar’s newsmedia. And that construction also led me to reflect on the choice to stage these three plays as a single saga, and not, for instance to include Titus Andronicus, even though it is similar to each of the Roman Tragedies when examined through the lens of the individual (Caius Martius, Brutus, Antony, Titus) interacting with an idea of Rome. What Titus doesn’t have is the idea of Rome’s relationship with its people, and the world changing. It has politicians, but little politics. Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are full of actual political wrangling.

RM: This sweep of history through the three plays gives you, brilliantly, the movement from a republic to a dictatorship. In Coriolanus, it’s all about pleasing the plebs (literal plebs, not what George Osborne thinks you are), by the end of Ant and Cleo, you’ve got Octavius cemented as the sole ruler of an empire. The genius is that van Hove makes this feel like a rational and sensible move, and one that is happening directly to you. It’s clear in the way that we’re addressed, flattered, and shepherded around that the audience is ‘playing’ the people, but it’s a deeply cynical metaphor: we bear witness, everything is done to impress us, we are told our role is central – but ultimately we have no actual power over what goes on. And it kicks off with Coriolanus, which repeatedly makes the point that The People are responsible for all Rome’s ills, so there’s actually something quite masochistic about the experience of it. I kept thinking of The Thick of It or Veep: the slightly hysterical Armando Iannucci vibe that politics would run much more smoothly if the public didn’t keep mucking things up by being around and wanting things. If Roman Tragedies hadn’t been made in 2007 and by a Dutch company, I’d probably have been snorting and rolling my eyes over such an obvious nod to current populism – why don’t you just splash the words ‘The Will of the People’ on a banner and be done with it?

DR: While people began to filter onstage in the first couple of scene changes, I was struck by the weight of each decision – the audience sitting on sofas next to actors lamenting Caius Martius’ latest outburst look from the stalls like patient plaintiffs, awaiting a verdict. They could have been about to stand in front of the consuls and plead for their citizenship. It’s a powerful piece of set dressing – near saturation of the playing space with attentive, reactive observers – and it makes the first and final sections of the evening markedly distinct: empty corridors of power.


RM: Actually, I was worried at first that this British audience wouldn’t ‘get’ it when they were invited onstage – most seemed happy to sit sheepishly on the grey carpet tiles, occasionally startled by their proximity to an actor – but that too played itself into a brilliant kind of apathy. For all that we were told this world was our oyster, we did still tend to move only during scene changes. There was an interesting moment during Mark Antony’s eulogy for Caesar, when he hints at large bequests left to the Roman public – someone in the audience shouted “read the will”, and I was weirdly quite annoyed at this interruption because a) Hans Kesting was talking and b) my understanding was that we weren’t being invited to ‘join in’ in that way, that this was a misreading of the audience’s role. It’s all too easy to spin into a neat analogy for the UK electorate’s approach to politics: you can protest, agitate, campaign, but what are you probably actually going to do? Wait for the next general election, trot out your quinquennial bit of direct democracy, and then grumble until the next one.

But contemporary political parallels are so readily available that it’s easy to forget this work was created a decade ago, which speaks to the strength of a) the work, b) the plays themselves, and c) the fact that you can reliably find self-interest and fear of the populace in most human societies that have a ruling elite. It’s almost more fun to think about the moments where it comes away from easy 20th/21st century parallels and deals with something specifically Roman/Elizabethan (arguably more the former, as the historical ordering of the plays and the news ticker giving historical context makes an argument that the text is a means of examining the Romans, a far cry from British theatre with its unwieldy veneration of the text as an end in itself) as these by nature are the greatest moments of world building.

DR: Exactly – so for example Caius Martius and Aufidius’ obsession with honour has no place in a Roman consulate that is discussing pacifying and reassuring the plebians with grain. But even that obsession read to me as very familiar to modern eyes – Caius Martius’ angry rejection of protocol in that context looked like Farage’s antics as an MEP. I came out of the experience thinking that the production had very precise thoughts about charismatic leaders and the celebrification of politics. But actually I think we read into those things even ten years later because Roman Tragedies uses quite a broad theme rather than a conceptualisation/contextualisation. It doesn’t give us “All’s Well That Ends Well, but it’s The Great Depression”. It doesn’t even do, “Hamlet, but a doubleplus surveillance state”. It says these are political plays – ie plays about the business of doing politics. So what set of aesthetics and gestures does politics have? We have live TV interviews and formal debates, we have strategy meetings, and hushed deal-making. We have the utilitarian modern spaces that are evocative of late twentieth and twenty-first century politics – Brussels, the UN, with namecards and discreet microphones. We have endless men and women in suits. It’s a broad enough context that we will read our current political disasters into it. (Although this Barbican staging had been reduxed with Trump, Clinton and Cameron footage, amongst others, which was maybe a touch extreme as an external visual.)


RM: Rather than make the whole six hours sound like a massive bummer, let me affirm: it is fucking brilliant and, I’m going to go out on a limb and say, the best Shakespeare I have ever seen. THE WOMEN. The women had all the best stuff – not only are the actual female characters given serious dramaturgical weight (the scene between Caius Martius and his wife Virgilia is the only one not staged as a public performance, Julius Caesar has a beautiful quiet split screen mash-up of domestic scenes between Portia/Brutus and Calpurnia/Caesar that makes both couples just feel *doomed*, Charmian, one feels, is a key player in Cleopatra’s Egyptian state) but a whole bunch of the male roles have been quietly re-gendered in a way that you feel would be a Major Talking Point in the result of Dom Cavendish’s next looming deadline crisis. Properly too, pronouns and all. Marieke Heebink as Cassius was an absolute favourite, the kind of weary female politician who knows her best chance at getting stuff done is to find a charismatic male politician to parrot all her best ideas. It was pretty delicious to watch Maria Kraakman as a paradoxically compassionate would-be dictator Octavius come out on top at the end of the six hours, Cleopatra falling not to some trust fund kid but to another woman (if the negotiations between Sturgeon and May are even half as dramatic we’ll never need male-dominated subject matter for our political plays ever again). It was really interesting to watch this off the back of having seen Ellen McDougall’s (excellent) Othello at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: while that felt like a very conscious re-wiring of the play to illuminate the position women occupy within its universe, this didn’t feel like the plays had been particularly re-directed towards the female characters at all – they simply were.

DR: Marieke Heebink was also a revelation as Charmian – such an affectionate but strong-willed stage manager of Cleopatra’s life. Chris Nietvelt’s Cleopatra was incredible especially because she was believable as a head of state. Less queen, more PM. And we saw her in her precious, precious downtime. And that sense of privacy was reestablished as we retook our seats for the final acts of Antony and Cleopatra. They barely have any time together in this play, you realise, and none alone with each other, but the romantic, mythic and political ramifications of their every last movement in Act 4 hit you again and again. It’s a difficult place to end, as Octavius grows in her importance, and Cleopatra and Antony seem to reject politics completely in favour of their own myths, but through seeing these leaders lapse into selfish mutual obsession you are reminded of what everyone else has given up, or redirected to construct themselves as leaders of the world. And yes, having Octavius played by a woman really emphasises this – because it’s her who stands over Cleopatra at the end of the play, with the threat of making her an exhibit.

I did think that the final section felt long. As we retook our seats we also refocused: and it was a strange shift in priorities from what had come before, where every line seemed to have the fate of Rome in the balance. The final section is elegiac which makes sense of Egypt and all it implies (bisexuality, business casual and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers?) is dying. Octavius’ calculated rise could have been given more weight and kept our eyes on the Romanity of it all even if she doesn’t have the focus in the text. But regardless of how it fits with the whole, it is still some of the most exquisite Antony and Cleopatra you’ll see and I didn’t begrudge spending that last hour in real time focus with those characters and those performers.

RM: I think I broadly disagree about the final section: it is long, but Hans Kesting and Chris Nietvelt are so wrenching, especially in the section where they find some privacy offstage – but of course they don’t, because it’s being filmed and we’re watching. What struck me is how bereft the stage felt when the audience left it – there’s a bit near the end of Antony and Cleopatra about Dionysus (Antony’s patron god) having abandoned the city prior to their defeat. It did feel like a protective spirit had gone from their world.

Since we’re talking about the performances, I should say here that actually everyone is microphoned and filmed almost constantly, images relayed to the screens as news footage. In a purely practical way, this elevates every single actor to another level: there’s no sawing the air or declaiming, the vocal demands of the Barbican never become a concern, every twitch and flicker and bit of eye contact is recorded and offered up. It’s almost impossible to imagine a British production doing this, because British performances (especially of Shakespeare) are still so inextricably bound up with a very classical idea of what actors should do and sound like (America loves it, that’s why they keep nicking Brits to play unctuous villains). In British theatre, microphones and film are almost regarded as cheating – witness the periodic habit old lovies have of complaining that young actors these days mumble too much or skip their vocal training. But watching such a wide array of nuanced, detailed, up close AND auditorium-commanding performances, you wonder what exactly is the superiority of our approach? Why *are* we prioritising the ability to boom over the ability to get *inside* the text, to wear it like it’s an old pair of jeans rather than a funeral suit? And on that note, LET’S TALK ABOUT HANS KESTING (Mark Antony). I mean, if British theatre really prides itself on having the best actors, then we need to cut that shit right out until we have a Hans Kesting because fuck.

DR: Who do we have that is quite so male but also that deft and capable? It was as if Vinnie Jones had Rylance-like presence. Like I imagine young Kenneth Cranham might be. But also he especially seemed – and this was part of something that to me seemed true of the wider company, especially as the performances grew more private in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, and maybe was simply a function of watching the company through the language barrier – he seemed to have very little interest in acting for the audience. “Friends Romans Countrymen” was an incredible set piece, and it saw him yell and bawl, but he didn’t feel the need to connect to us – to show us what he was thinking. Rather we saw this speech act and had to figure it out. He didn’t predigest and signpost his ‘real Mark Antony thoughts’ for us. But at the same time, for a speech we know the movements of, practically transliterating the Dutch in our heads, it makes it seem completely new, completely ballsy.

RM: I’m using this moment to state that “Friends Romans Countrymen” was my Official Favourite Bit. It’s at Caesar’s funeral and Brutus gives this perfectly good and even quite moving speech with all the force of anti-tyrannical righteousness behind it but he stays within the boundaries of what’s been agreed: he uses the podium and the mics and speaks slowly. And then Antony’s turn comes (and the great thing here is that this works whether or not you know what’s coming next, whether you’re waiting for the famous line or just massively aware that shit is about to go down) and there’s a really, really long pause and then HE THROWS HIS NOTES AWAY and I was all “oh my god yes this speech which is taught as the ultimate example of rhetoric is actually off the cuff” and then Antony takes a microphone and sits on the floor in front of the podium and speaks really quietly into the camera about his dead best friend and cries and I was all “OH MY GOD of course we should question the received wisdom that this speech is super calculating and manipulative because he’s just lost his best friend” AND THEN Antony fucking turns the whole motherfucking thing around and starts talking about the murderers and how great Caesar was and the whole thing gets more and more like a rally and he’s going into the audience and bringing Caesar’s dead body out on stage and drawing diagrams of his stab wounds and the conspirators run off and start flipping their shit as they realise what a fucking error they’ve made letting him speak and I was like “HOLY SHIT IT ACTUALLY WAS MANIPULATIVE ALL ALONG, CONSIDER ME THOROUGHLY MANIPULATED”. As Dave says, there wasn’t a single moment when the ‘real’ thoughts were being telegraphed to us, I wasn’t being made to feel falsely clever because I could spot an actor pretending to lie, I believed all of it at every minute. It was a rollercoaster, is what I’m saying – it was an actual living piece of theatre, and I couldn’t breathe for a lot of it.

DR: The push and pull of public and private declarations came to a brilliant head in that speech. You’ve just recounted it, but the “throw my notes away, leave the podium, BUT WAIT I’D BETTER GET A MICROPHONE, cause y’all are gonna want to hear this” was effortlessly smart and hugely clear. And the image of Brutus (Eelco Smits) running his hands over his head as Antony’s speech achingly turns like a bayonet on him, caught between flatscreens of Kesting’s tear strewn-face! Being onstage, caught physically between this semi-private moment of horror, and this virtuoso rhetorical display being played out to the stalls – I felt like I could have bagged a Pulitzer if I had snapped that image.

RM: The other thing we have to talk about is the language. The actors are speaking a Dutch translation, which is then relayed into English subtitles: it’s almost the original text but not quite. Oblique sentences are unwound and re-ordered so they’re closer to modern English – making it scan or rhyme or remotely verse-y doesn’t seem to be a priority – and obscure words are swapped out for more recognisable ones. I wondered while watching whether such an act of dramaturgical simplification works, or is only permitted to work, because to us it’s in a foreign language. Would British audiences accept a version of this translation performed in English in the same way, or does the Dutch act as a barrier against criticism? Even I had a bit of a tin ear with some of the nakedly contemporary interpolations made to Othello at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (dramaturged by Joel Horwood), and I’m pretty game for anything that demystifies Shakespeare. On the other hand, Robert Icke’s (very van Hove influenced) Hamlet took a similar approach and I only spotted one change in the whole four hours (“drink up eisel” to “drink up poison”) so if we can ease audiences into a slightly more radical approach to text via a careful peeling away, then bloody hell, let’s do it. (NB I’ve created quite a homogenised view of British audiences who go to see Shakespeare in this review – I too go to see a lot of Shakespeare so while this is based on anecdotal evidence, it’s a pretty wide sample size. Basically just don’t underestimate how conservative Globe/RSC/NT audiences can be when it comes down to it.)

And that leads me onto my main takeaway from Roman Tragedies, because while certain senior figures in British theatre are busy beating back the spectre of European influence, maybe the most interesting way of looking at the show is through the questions it poses for Shakespeare in the UK: how can we do this? How can we evolve our own tradition so that our Shakespeare feels as raw and new and believable as this once you remove the licence afforded by the language barrier? Because at present, we are not doing it, we simply are not. And is a simplification (a democratisation?) of Shakespeare’s language the only route available to us? It would pain me to lose some of that language, I will admit. But maybe our whole problem is that for way too long we’ve thought of Shakespeare as a poet. He’s not a fucking poet. He’s a dramatist. The structure, stories and characters that he presents shouldn’t play second fiddle to good verse speaking just because good verse speaking is central to the classical training received in most British drama schools. What makes a good quote doesn’t always make a good line.

DR: I would have struggled to hear iambic pentameter alongside this staging. The Scandi mumble was strong for me, and ran through the acting style. Darting eyes to the subtitles like consulting a fact-checker was just right. But what I was struck by (as I was struck in a very different way by Filter’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) is that too often we tiptoe around the verse and the characters and the stories, and the overriding sense watching them is that they are fragile. Filter shows that you can use disunity and incoherence to stress-test the plays. Van Hove shows that you can stress-test them by finding your own throughlines and fixations and these plays stand up unbruised again and again and again. (And that’s without even considering the potential value of actually bruising and breaking them.) One of the takeaways for me was that this felt less like ‘readings of the plays’ and more like readings *with* the plays. Less explored, more wielded. And that, frankly, was very exciting to see standing up and taking on all comers ten years later.

RM: Well, exactly: in the end, Roman Tragedies is an utterly faithful expression of Shakespeare, of the way he cracks open the basic ambiguity of even the noblest gestures. In using the text as means to an end, rather than an end in itself, Roman Tragedies (I suspect) gets closer to a ‘pure’ production of Shakespeare than anything that’s touched by reverence or preserved in aspic. This is doubly interesting after seeing Robert Icke’s Hamlet, with its van Hoveyness in spades: the Bob Dylan soundtrack, the Scandi noir decor, but most centrally the practice of rejecting outright any ‘received wisdom’ about the play, which actually leads to the greatest strength of a (great, great) production, which is the performances. Because while they take some of that Dutch style of performance – again, no sawing the air or declaiming, no inflected -ed endings to slavishly observe metre, just quietly, attentively *nailing* the sense of each and every line – when you are confined to your seats, when there are no microphones or cameras (ok, there are cameras), you do need some of that that classical actor training to creep in and push it to the back of the circle, where I was sitting – Juliet Stevenson was consistently 100% luminous because she had the trick of appearing to be delivering her performance right next to you.

So basically if Ellen McDougall and Robert Icke are the future of Euro inflected theatre in the UK (i.e. perhaps not as formally fuck you but packing an actual gut punch into these bloody old plays) then I can’t for a minute see what they’re doing as disrespectful or egotistical, or really born out of anything other than love for a playwright who will, let’s face it, always be important to the national identity of this country, whatever that may be.

For more information on Roman Tragedies, click here


Review: Roman Tragedies at the Barbican Show Info

Directed by Ivo van Hove

Written by William Shakespeare, adapted by Toneelgroep Amsterdam and translated by Tom Kleijn

Cast includes Janni Goslinga, Chris Nietvelt, Frieda Pittoors, Hans Kesting, Marieke Heebink, Eelco Smits, Bart Slegers, Roeland Fernhout, Hugo Koolschijn, Helene Devos, Fred Goessens, Marieke Heebink, Alwin Pulinckx, Gijs Scholten van Aschat



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