Roman Tragedies

William Shakespeare
Toneelgroep Amsterdam
Barbican Theatre
(2009)

You have to say that this day trip did not sound all that promising. Shakespeare's three Roman Tragedies performed by an avant-garde company in Dutch for six solid hours with not so much as a whiff of an interval. In fact, the marathon proved to be distinctly unusual with probably a few more highs than lows.

The overall impression is of one of Katie Mitchell's more eccentric productions accentuated. The set is a kind of movable feast that soon gets occupied by audience members keen to use the onstage bars and cafeterias or even computer terminals at which one can surf the net or pick up an e-mail or two.

For most of the afternoon and evening, a couple of hundred availed themselves of the opportunity to watch the action from behind. In fact, a brief sample suggests that the normal Barbican seating was a far better bet, particularly as director Ivo van Hove clearly sees this as an opportunity to create an experience that is frequently closer to a visit to the cinema than the theatre.

The design is ultramodern with TV screens everywhere and the actors dressed in smart contemporary clothing that would as easily suit a new Martin Crimp or David Hare as 400-year-old William Shakespeare.

With two visible percussionists creating everything from quiet accompaniments to stormy war scenes, a camerawoman following the action and caterers flogging sandwiches, it would take time to tune in, even for Dutch speakers.

For Brits who are not lucky enough to be bilingual (or are but in the wrong language), the task is made even more difficult although, in effect, they find themselves watching a subtitled foreign movie on the big screen above the action.

Just to confuse everyone further, historical information and mysterious predictions are offered just beneath the subtitles by a red ticker, which is at its wittiest when informing us of an upcoming death in 2 or 5 minutes but in one case, 140 minutes later in an ensuing play.

Whether it is the strangeness of what is going on, the prospect of the six-hour ordeal or the weakness of the production, the 90 minute Coriolanus is a struggle. We are not helped throughout by the deliberate lack of glamour and flamboyance, which would have helped a great deal in the tale of the Roman warrior who heroically wins a war, swaps sides, much to the chagrin of his delightfully overbearing mother Volumnia given full dramatic voice by Frieda Pittoors, and then dies a fairly honourable man.

The transition into Julius Caesar is invisible, such that, unless you were listening carefully, it would not be obvious that Coriolanus had ended. This play works rather better, although some confusion is injected by the gender changes for Cassius and Casca, not traditional breeches parts.

The drama continues to unfold on sofas and over meeting tables but the story better lends itself to this style. In particular, Hans Kesting gives a moving eulogy as Mark Anthony, enhanced by the unfortunate actor's predicament. Whilst performing the trilogy in the Netherlands, Kesting injured himself to such a degree that he is now heroically playing from a wheelchair with a leg in plaster and wrist bandaged.

By now, viewers will have got used to the way that Toneelgroep from Amsterdam work and should find it easier to enjoy a drama that is still lacking in visual appeal. If nothing else though, this concentrates the attention on the acting, even if this is often better watched on screen than stage.

Kesting continues to play Mark Antony in the longest play of the evening, Antony and Cleopatra. The Roman is now far less noble as he tries to balance loyalty to his empire with passion for the Egyptian queen, played by Chris Nietvelt. This is when the production really takes off, to start with because the sexual chemistry between this pair is so powerful that one worries whether Kesting might do himself another injury.

Antony has big problems at home, primarily generated by Octavius Caesar, confusingly played by Hadewych Minis, necessitating gender switches in the text and double takes when references are made to a powerful woman, which can either be Cleopatra or Octavius depending on context.

Humour is also more to the fore than earlier on, in particular in the person of Octavius' sister Karina Smulders' Octavia, a dumb Essex girl blonde, or, as the backing video suggests, a Roman precursor of Britney.

Balancing a blonde wife, a dark-haired regal mistress and loyalty to two different empires would be more than enough for anybody but is made even trickier by that wheelchair. Even so, Hans Kesting is the star of the show, even ignoring his heroism in appearing at all.

It may sound daunting but this kind of experience is so rare that it might be worth a try, especially if you are familiar with these plays. This is not quite Shakespeare as we know it but, particularly in Antony and Cleopatra, is a fascinating alternative.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher