Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 20 November, 2009

Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s non-stop production of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony And Cleopatra might have been expected to anger those who exalt the liveness of theatre. Most of the action, which takes place around a large, cluttered media lounge of a set, is visible principally on a large video screen above the stage, where we also have to look for surtitles. Yet this is live action, and moreover the audience becomes an integral part of it. For we are invited, during each of the brief scene changes which take the place of intervals, to come onstage for the next segment, sit on a sofa, get food and drink from stalls at the side of the stage, even check our e-mail at an Internet point.
A number of productions of Shakespeare’s Roman plays use the audience as the mob of plebeians at required moments, but director Ivo van Hove integrates us throughout as the populus of Senatus Populusque Romanus, amongst and amidst whom these events take place. And even though we are, as it were, the arena, we still have to look at screens to get the full picture, for that is the condition of contemporary world events. And if that picture is sometimes confused, well, history is written by the winners, but rolling news has to cover all the bases. Indeed, some news bulletins are interpolated with the action, so that we see interviews with Coriolanus’ enemy Tullus Aufidius; moreover, an LED display above the video screen periodically ticks the day’s real-life news past us.
It is a thrilling enactment of the way the modern citizen exists amid the multi-valued carnival of politics and media coverage. It is, however, far from faultless. Turning a number of major characters into women may make sense in contemporary terms, but it jars with the distinctly subordinating assumptions of the plays: how can a female Octavius Caesar conquer most of the known world and yet no-one question her treatment of her own sister as a chattel? Some of the actuality footage shown on minor screens around the stage is specious: the implicit analogy between Julius Caesar and JFK does not stand up to more than a moment of scrutiny. Above all, I found that the production had made all its presentational and structural points by its halfway mark. I am an aficionado of theatrical marathons, yet I found these six hours were enough to run me into the durational “wall” but not through it.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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