Roman Tragedies is a six-hour Shakespearean marathon presented in Dutch. As the director himself, Ivo van Hove, admits, this is a daunting prospect. “When we opened in 2007 [at the Holland Festival], I told the guy working for me who does the international tours: don’t invite anybody to come and see this. They will hate it.” He was wrong about that. Not only has van Hove merged these three tragedies – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar & Antony and Cleopatra – with a willingness to pare, stripping the imagery and language to its stark and brutal core, but he has also staged the piece in a manner so dynamic as to convince the viewer it’s all quite modern. Most innovative of all is the audience’s freedom of movement – not only allowed throughout the theater but also onto the stage itself. As gimmicky as this might sound, it actually works. We were reticent to move at first, enjoying our front row mezzanine view, watching the audience rush for ideal places, but we did finally head down – 2 1/2 hours into the production – to the back corner of the stage.We found ourselves suddenly amidst the conspirators during Antony’s famed eulogy. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.The energy was genuinely intimidating; Brutus was so upset that a small woman jumped behind me to avoid being hit.
The members of this theater company, Toneelgroep, are dedicated to their craft; they throw themselves into the characters with a passion for the psyche of their roles, seemingly unconcerned for the trappings of costume and setting. But the staging really is the thing, using TV monitors, on-stage cameras, digital photographs of each character as they die – reminiscent of the last images of modern day tyrants such as Ceausescu, Hussein and Gaddafi. Not to be forgotten are the giant video screen, scrolling news stream as well as the thunderous roll of percussion and light. It is, without doubt, a memorable work. And if you don’t have time to get something beforehand, remember that they serve drinks and snacks right on stage.