Academic journal article TheatreForum

Radical Freedom: Ivo Van Hove's Roman Tragedies

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Radical Freedom: Ivo Van Hove's Roman Tragedies

Article excerpt

Cleopatra has come, weeping, to the conclusion that her protector and lover Antony is dead. His body lies behind her on a grey bier, and his silent image hangs on screens throughout the space. Her rages, which have been the true squalls and tempests driving this naval drama to its tragic conclusion, begin to subside. She gathers her women around her to tell them that the time has come for suicide. Charmian, her trusty handmaid, is sent in search of the asp. Which, suddenly, she can not find.

As Charmian runs laughing around the cavernous space, calling red-faced for the snake, Cleopatra and her remaining serving women dissolve in giggles. The actress Marieke Heebink dashes from staging area to staging area in the open-plan set, shifting our attention cinematically up and away from the intense zone around Cleopatra to a wide "shot" of the hangar-sized environment. The moment is suspended. It's an electrifying moment in Ivo van Hove's epic compilation Roman Tragedies as we realize, suddenly, that no death is free of absurdity. [Photo 1]

And yet, this startling moment-and cause of moderate nervousness about a certain snake perhaps rustling under our seats-was itself a mistake. In a press conference the day after the performance, van Hove would cheerfully admit that the snake's box had gone missing in the universal way of wayward props, and the handler had discovered it in the time-honored tradition of nick-of-time technical saves. And yet, the director assured us, "We never worry, because there is nothing that can disturb this show." Van Hove can be confident because his Roman Tragedies, an edited marathon of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, has been constructed to be radically flexible. Ordinary rules of audience-performer interaction have been suspended, and with them go the fragility of a performance based on illusion. The Toneelgroep Amsterdam production at the Dialog Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, held hundreds of audience members in thrall-but not (and this is the crucial distinction) in the captivity we usually associate with the performing arts.

On entering a cavernous space (in Wroclaw, an empty film studio), the audience sits on an immense bench of bleacher-seating, facing a floor covered in a maze of couches facing every which way. Among the sofas are desks and stepped platforms-all covered in ubiquitous flat, grey carpeting-and television sets and potted plants dot the floor. [Photo 2] Far in the back sits a television anchor's desk. We seem to be in either a soulless hotel lobby, a massive greenroom for a television news show, or an Ikea. Running down the extreme stage right and left sides of the stage, where wings would be in a conventional production, are long tables. Stage right are the make-up tables and video staging areas (we can tell because we see immense signs above each table); stage left is a long set-up that looks like a snack bar or cafeteria line, as well as a table with laptops and another with magazines. In nests quite near the audience on both sides are percussionists, ringed with gigantic tympani. The stage picture is flattened into a long "letterbox" rectangle by a huge screen, which hangs over the stage. From our perspective in the bleachers, fully half of our visual space is taken up by that screen, while along its bottom edge runs a red "ticker," the digital newsscroller familiar from the sides of buildings eager to let us know the latest DOW gains.

Things begin conventionally enough. Shakespeare's Coriolanus gets off to its usual rollicking start, with the percussionists providing an aural din to simulate Rome's battles with Aufidius's forces. Women are occasionally cast in men's roles, although men and women alike stride about in terrifying, grey power suits. Fedja van Huêt sulks beautifully as the moody general, and the stunning Frieda Pittoors rips into her speeches as his mother, Volumnia, her hair frozen in a Thatcherite swoop. …

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