Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Roman Tragedies. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Adelaide Festival Theatre. Adelaide Festival 2014.

Cymbals clang and the bass drums beat out their mighty sounds to herald the war between the Corioles and the Volscians at the opening of Toneelgroep’s phenomenal staging of William Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedies, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

This extraordinary and monumental 6 hour production leaves an indelible impression as it scales the heights to present a production of overwhelming imaginative power, sheer theatrical brilliance and contemporary insight into Shakespeare’s searing exposure of the strengths and frailties of human nature. Ben Jonson’s tribute to Shakespeare that he is a playwright for all ages may well be applied to Ivo van Hove’s production that Toneelgroep’s interpretation of the Roman Tragedies. This is a production firmly rooted in our time with resonance for all time all time.

Van Hove pays homage to the theories and practices of Bertolt Brecht. It is paradoxical that he should employ such alienation devices as contemporary costuming, banner headlines forecasting the deaths of principal characters, recorded songs, announcements of set changes and historical information flashed upon the screens. The company strips away all artifice, while paradoxically riveting our attention on the superb performances of the cast. In spite of the many devices used to tell the story from live performance upon the vast Festival Theatre stage to TV screens spread throughout the furniture upon the stage where the audience are invited to sit, and in spite of the bars and serveries and make-up tables set along the outer perimeters of the stage, we cannot escape the intimacy and intense conflict of Shakespeare’s historical figures. Some audience who have wandered onto the stage during a set change and taken their seats amongst the actors or those who have remained in the general seating throughout the auditorium are equally enveloped by the drama and engrossed in the action. It is inescapable. It is immediate.
It may be confusing for those accustomed to conventional relationships between audience and performer, but then there are sufficient opportunities for audiences to be informed. Surtitles assist a clearer understanding of a text and interpretation of the spoken Dutch, at times entirely true to the Shakespearian blank verse, and at times slightly contemporized to enhance clarity and understanding. At every turn there is a monitor relaying the live action and the subtitles on the small screens. I watched a young man and woman, riveted to the screen as if in the lazy comfort of their loungeroom. Perhaps they left the theatre at midnight, not buoyed up by the immense power of the plays and the performances, but by the entertainment of engrossing stories and the comfort of an experience familiar to them and not mystical in its experience.

One is left with an enduring awareness of the contemporary relevance of a world before the birth of Christ that bore a striking resemblance to our own time and circumstance. Coriolanus’s banishment may be an extreme solution to the ranglings of a senatorial inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board scandal or the ejection from the house during the highly theatrical and impassioned Question Time, but its parallel could not be ignored in this epic representation of political and personal conflict. At the rear of the stage another monitor screens news footage from current conflicts, footage of Kennedy’s personal and political life and subsequent assassination. Alexander Downer strides amongst an assembly of notable politicians, proud and confident in his position. Those who pause to view will also be compelled to contemplate.

We are such stuff as fickle fortune makes us. We are human beings. We love, we fight, we falter and we fall. We are proud Coriolanus, noble Brutus, loyal Marc Antony and the vulnerable and neurotic Cleopatra. We are the Volscansi or the Corioles. We are the protectors and the attackers. We are all destined to live and to die and our little lives are rounded by a sleep. What Toneelgroep’s remarkable interpretation and performance of the Roman Tragedies does is reveal the full spectrum of our own humanity. Shakespeare is their wise and venerable mentor, van Hove is his inspirational acolyte and the company van Hove’s magnificent messengers of an unforgettable and outstanding theatrical tour de force.

There are few theatrical explosions that illuminate our lives with epiphany and reveal to us our nature through the history of our race. Shakespeare provides the means, but it is Toneelgroep’s genius that reveals his fundamental truths through their work.

If ever the opportunity should arise on stage ,on film, online or in print, be sure to visit the work of this amazing theatrical company. I only wonder now whether I shall ever be able to watch another production of Shakespeare’s Roman plays without this experience at Adelaide Festival 2014 forever engraved upon my mind and in my heart.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins   



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