For the Loser Now Will Be Later to Win

Depending on how much you love the Bard, a six-hour, Dutch-language Shakespeare trilogy could either sound like the seventh circle of Hell or proof that God loves us very much.  Ivo van Hove, who has combined Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra into Roman Tragedies, is certainly trying to turn his marathon production into a major theatrical event.  After the first twenty minutes, the audience is invited to walk on the set and take advantage of two bars on either side of the stage. (When this was first announced, we were told that there was “no need to rush or line up; you still have five and half hours remaining.”)  Televisions with a live feed of the performance are scattered all across the set and in the lobby so you don’t miss anything.  Live tweets about the production (#RomanTragedies) run across a ticker.  There is a working computer onstage so you can “check your email.”  Sometimes, the cameras are turned on us and we can see our reactions on a big screen above the stage, a thespian equivalent of the kiss-cam.

The initial excitement is palpable, but it dies quickly.  The tone is more befitting a rock concert than a play, where you don’t have to hear all the songs to enjoy the show.  But Shakespeare is not about his greatest hits.  You can’t elbow your way to the front of the crowd for “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” then bail early to beat the traffic right before “boy my greatness.” (Incidentally, “boy my greatness” is rewritten as “teenage Cleopatra.”)  Mr. Hove’s production, which already condenses the action of the three plays, seems only to ask for about half your attention—and at the performance I attended, this led to some bizarre reactions from the audience.  When Coriolanus (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) complained about power lying in the hands of fools, several people cheered—most likely, they didn’t realize that this proto-fascist was speaking about the plebeians and not their leaders.  Later, Enobarbus’ (Bart Slegers) death was met with quite a bit of laughter.  Furthermore, if you do decide to watch from onstage, you will find yourself either craning your neck to see the actors (and thereby ignoring the subtitles), or staring at one of the television screens; instead of an immersive experience, it is more like watching a movie with bad production values, surrounded by people whispering, ordering drinks, or failing to quietly scarf down a bag of Pirate’s Booty.

The conclusion of Julius Caesar is met with a large exodus of the audience—who could blame them?—and those who remain are forced to sit through an Antony and Cleopatra that is desperate to outdo its own trendiness.  In one scene, Cleopatra (Chris Nietvelt) has an orgy with her handmaidens while the Red Hot Chili Peppers blast through the speakers; later, a final goodbye between Mark Antony (Hans Kesting) and his Egyptian queen is scored with Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet.”  This might have been a good choice—it is a moody, thematically appropriate song—if the two lovers weren’t comically and discordantly humping each other.  Lest we think Dylan was chosen hastily, the entire production is bookended with “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” one of the singer’s worst and most unsubtle songs.

Admittedly, Mr. Hove should be applauded for his bravery; he has many interesting ideas—actually, too many interesting ideas—which ultimately suffocate the text they should be supporting.  This isn’t simply style over substance, it’s style overwhelming substance.

Roman Tragedies runs through November 18th at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House.  30 Lafayette Avenue  Brooklyn, NY.  In Dutch with English supertitles.

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Aaron Botwick

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