This is not really a review. I am merely contemplating a production I saw the other week. A production of three Shakespeare plays, one after another, intertwined. A long Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But I’m not reviewing. Merely musing, if you will.
My anticipation had waned in the months between ordering tickets for Roman Tragedies and the date to attend. In fact, I dreaded the advertised 5 ½ hour performance. Mind you, having survived a 4 ¼ hour opera earlier this season, I felt I could do anything.
Now I know the truth: It is good to be mad, if it’s mad to book tickets for an adapted mash of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies — Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony & Cleopatra — being presented with neither reserved seating nor intermissions. In Dutch. For those who wonder why I’d see a play in Dutch, it’s simple: A good silent film still tells a story. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and glorious as the verse often is, he was a dramatist, a storyteller, and a good one. More, consider this: When the actors speak in a language I don’t understand, I don’t have to suffer anyone mangling the verse. The story still works and the characters still live. I can guarantee it works in Japanese, Swedish, Portuguese, French, and now Dutch.
In director Ivo van Hove’s interesting gambit with his company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, news crawls of today’s reality (Israel, Gaza, Hurricane Sandy) combine with crawls of the Volscian War, which appeared below a huge screen showing some part of the onstage action. Time recorded and broadcast somehow flies faster than time ignored.
The conceit was this. The company of Dutch actors were in modern dress. The stage was covered with seating areas you might see in a large lobby of a beige hotel whose guests enjoyed eavesdropping on one another’s conversations. And the audience was allowed onstage for most of the play, during which time they could lounge in that lobby, wander at will, get a drink from the onstage bar, or access the internet from a work station. They were encouraged to Tweet to #RomanTragedies during the performance, therefore no phones or cameras were hidden away. [Note: This is annoying. Flashes from the stage should have meaning, not just be a nuisance factor.] The audience could watch the actors live and watch the actors on the live feed while reading the English subtitles. Set and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld supported van Hove’s parlor game, and the video design by Tal Yarden was quite good.
And the crawl: Never forget the crawl. Clearly van Hove assumed (rightly) that the audience knew nothing of 5th Century BC Rome, or Volscians of any time, let alone that the new Roman Republic’s famed senate only represented the upper classes until the fifth century BC, and then the plebeian tribunes were barely tolerated by the less humble of the upper classes, all of which is rather important to understanding the action of the first play, Coriolanus — well, I don’t know where that sentence started, but suffice to say, the “news” crawl was welcome.
For our amusement, van Hove uses and abuses television and internet news styles. By providing the barest necessary information in Tweet form along the bottom of the screens all over the stage and in the BAM café, the audience felt no pain at the production’s length and remained tightly focused on the action from the fifth century to 44 all the way to 30 BC.
It’s always odd to read a translation of Shakespeare back into English, but this adaptation is sharp: Large blades were applied to the texts of Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. Rather unfortunately, by the time the shears got to Antony & Cleopatra, they’d been dulled a bit.
But I digress. In any case, the news crawls explaining the wars and the politics and the power struggles were enlightening and often hilarious. When somebody died, the name of the character with years of birth and death were displayed (e.g., Julius Caesar 100 BC - 44 BC), then augmented by startling spoilers, like “180 minutes to the death of Brutus;” or “240 minutes to the death of Cleopatra.”
Each scene change included a countdown clock, telling the audience they had 4:36 to use the bathroom or down a half pint of a local harvest brew (mediocre). Tweets that had made their way from the stage to the internet joined the crawl, some of which were quite amusing.
With all these shenanigans going on, perhaps we all laughed a bit more than we ought to have. These are, after all, Roman tragedies. The small but excellent cast left us in no doubt of that. This is a remarkable repertory company production with most of the actors appearing in all three plays in roles of varying prominence.
For instance, Chris Nietvelt played a television interviewer in Coriolanus (slyly interviewing the Volscian Tullus Aufidius after his defeat by Caius Martius a.k.a. Coriolanus, and later after his storming of Rome with Coriolanus after the latter’s exile — got it?); a fine nervous Casca in Julius Caesar; then she topped off the night with Cleopatra in Antony and.
The only actor I didn’t particularly care for was Roeland Fernhout, whose Cominius in Coriolanus and Thidias in Antony & Cleopatra were unobjectionable in themselves yet too similar in the same evening. His Brutus in the middle was mostly dull, until he called for his slave Lucius, and answered… himself. Sweetly. Is Brutus mad? Was there a political point to be made by Brutus speaking for or as Lucius? Am I dense?
The production had, perhaps, three minor flaws:
- The audience onstage, moving freely about, was distracting and sometimes annoying (see earlier note re cameras flashing).
- Microphones in addition to the audience onstage. I couldn’t tell where Tullus Aufidius was for most of his first scene with Caius Martius because he was surrounded by audience members and the voices of miked actors all come from the same place. It was the same feeling I’d had years ago when the Delacorte staged Richard III with Mary Alice’s powerful Queen Margaret speaking from behind a crowd of men on her first entrance. She could have been a ghost, since we could not hear where she was until the men parted and she came through. Annoying in 1990, miking of actors without compensation in staging by directors is barely forgivable in 2012.
- Finally, if the director and translator could shorten Coriolanus and Julius Caesar as much as they did, surely they could have cut 20-30 minutes out of the Antony & Cleopatra.
A high point was when there was … nothing. There was no noise beyond the audience shuffling about on the stage. Television screens showed a pop band performing, but there was no sound. Cleopatra cried out for music. Marc Antony finally came out and said “let’s take it back to….” [I could swear he said it in English but cannot be sure.] Then Cleopatra and Charmian essentially said to hell with the absence of music and started to dance wildly, to which the audience responded with uproarious approval. Great way to get past a technical glitch.
The end of Coriolanus, taken as a rebuke against anyone attempting to mess with the Republic of Rome, jumped ahead 400 or so years to blend seamlessly into Julius Caesar. There are great speeches in this play, family relationships galore, and many ways to confuse an audience. Director van Hove and Adaptor/Translator Tom Kleijn avoided them cleanly.
Julius Caesar rolled naturally into Antony & Cleopatra with the same actors continuing in the roles of Octavius, Lepidus, and Antony, joined by Chris Nietvelt as Cleopatra. Here the actors who played larger roles in the first two plays play smaller (still vital) roles in the last play, finishing up with a bang. A hoot and a holler. An altogether marvelous evening in the theatre.
~ Molly Matera, signing off to re-read the Roman tragedies before she goes back to BAM to see the Trojan Women…in English.