The Adelaide Festival scored an exciting coup with Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra). It is an exhilarating, inspiring piece of theatre that manages to incorporate the very best elements of the major theatre practitioners of the 20th century.
Director Ivo van Hove has brilliantly conceived of having a percentage of the audience seated on stage on grey, modular couches or standing by the bars on either side throughout much of the performance. Tal Yarden’s video concept is totally integrated with the show – a large screen displays the central action, as do a dozen smaller television screens scattered across the stage, while a few others display typical television programs or newsreels. Audience members who gravitate on stage experience an almost Grotowskian intimacy by being alongside the actors.
In good Brechtian tradition, historical information is transmitted via red teletext, deaths of key characters are forecast, and local news and politics is broadcast.
Costume designer Lies van Assche has dressed the cast in contemporary clothing and the Dutch experience of politicians must be similar to Shakespeare’s, the Romans and our own because the situations and dialogue resonate with current political debate about whether politicians are really in touch with the people. Although it is not a feminist production, the women feature as prominently as the men and easily take on traditional male roles, such as Karina Smulders’ commanding Octavius Caesar.
No matter how clever a theatrical concept, great shows require brilliant acting to be truly memorable, and the Toneelgroep Amsterdam actors are superb in their naturalistic delivery.
A cast of 14 actors play 37 roles, and their versatility is perhaps exemplified in the performance of Chris Nietvelt, who initially appears as a controlled television “Anchorman” interviewing a downcast Aufidius (Bart Slegers), leader of the Volsci who are at war with the Romans; as Caska, a senator who walks among the audience and then, conspiratorially, encourages others to assassinate Julius Caesar because of his ambition; and, finally, as an awkward, moody, sensual, manipulative Cleopatra destined for power and a lonely end.
Hans Kesting, as Antonius, delivers a sensational speech in support of Caesar and in so doing arouses the people’s anger against Brutus and his fellow murderers. Throughout Roman Tragedies, there are moments when an audience wants to applaud, but the show moves along at such a pace and with such interest that we refrain from showing appreciation so that we don’t miss anything. Kesting’s performance, however, was so moving we had to show how much we enjoyed his understanding of Shakespeare’s text and his ability to convey every subtlety and nuance.
Gijs Scholten van Aschat gets the first act, Coriolanus, off in style with his portrayal of Coriolanus as a brilliant general but an arrogant tribune whose dislike for the masses is evident. Frieda Pittoors as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, is a powerhouse on stage with her strength of delivery and control of difficult situations; she changes Coriolanus’s will on several occasions. Cleverly, much of Shakespeare’s language is intact, but the texts have been edited so that the plots are clear, the motives are understood and the arguments clearly delineated.
Occasionally theatre productions are mounted that challenge audiences with their length of performance and demand for sustained, focused concentration, but also delight them with their inventiveness, visual interest and impressive acting: such productions can be life-changing and stay with us forever. The Greeks, The Mahabharata and Nicholas Nickleby come to mind. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies is certainly one of the most intelligent and brilliant productions I have ever experienced.
Roman Tragedies’ season at the Festival Theatre has now ended.
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