Elec­tri­fy­ing spec­ta­cle of pol­i­tics in the era of 24-hour rolling news

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Lyn Gard­ner

Theatre Ro­man Tragedies The Bar­bican

Hans Kest­ing is about to give his funeral ora­tion as Mark Antony. He stum­bles to­wards the lectern, wild-eyed and di­shev­elled. He sud­denly throws away his notes, slumps in front of the stand, loosens his tie and ap­pears to spon­ta­neously ad­dress the crowd.

But is it an hon­est, grief-stricken re­sponse to the death of Julius Cae­sar? Or a clev­erly cal­cu­lated piece of per­for­mance de­signed to en­hance his own po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions? One that is con­ve­niently caught on cam­era.

It’s one of sev­eral elec­tri­fy­ing mo­ments in Ivo van Hove’s lean, clean, con­densed six-hour ver­sion of Co­ri­olanus, Julius Cae­sar, and Antony and Cleopa­tra which re­turns to the Bar­bican – where it was first staged in 2009. It’s still in great shape, with the en­sem­ble play­ing re­main­ing fe­ro­cious and pur­pose­ful.

Jan Ver­sweyveld’s de­sign re­frames Bar­bican’s stage as a bland, mod­ern in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence hall, com­plete with pot plants, screens dis­play­ing the ac­tion, news bul­letins and in­ter­views with the lead ac­tors, and an LED dis­play bring­ing news from the out­side world.

It re­minds us that, in this era of in­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion and 24-hour news, it is just as easy to be mis­in­formed as it is to be well in­formed. Un­sur­pris­ingly, in the open­ing min­utes, some screens briefly show a clip from Don­ald Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion.

In fact, van Hove’s pro­duc­tion – played in Dutch with English sub­ti­tles, which comes with its own gut­tural po­etry – takes on new mean­ing in light of the rise of pop­ulist move­ments across the US and Europe.

Van Hove’s mas­ter­stroke is to ex­cise all the scenes de­pict­ing war or giv­ing voice to the peo­ple. In­stead, the ac­tion is punc­tu­ated by the ca­cophonous clash of drums and cym­bals to de­note the con­flicts that end­lessly en­sue from the strut­ting and de­ci­sions of lead­ers – mostly men in suits.

The au­di­ence is cast in the role of the Rome cit­i­zens. Af­ter the first half hour of a pro­duc­tion that comes with only the briefest of pauses and no in­ter­vals, we are in­vited to move around. We can loll on the so­fas on stage, buy a sand­wich, check our emails. All as we watch, up close, Eelco Smits’ trou­bled Bru­tus fail­ing to deal with the fall­out from con­spir­acy, or Chris Ni­etvelt’s bril­liant Cleopa­tra mov­ing from drama queen to truly tragic fig­ure.

The theatre doors re­main open so the au­di­ence can take a break from the show. We dip in and out of un­fold­ing news, dra­mas and sto­ries, never with a com­plete pic­ture.

The LED screen pro­claims im­mi­nent blood­baths: “Five min­utes to Cas­sius’ death; 15 min­utes to Bru­tus’ death.” You cal­cu­late whether you can fit in a toi­let break. Af­ter all, we live in an age where news has be­come en­ter­tain­ment and you wouldn’t want to miss the juicy bits.

This might have been gim­mickry were it not so in­tel­li­gently and imag­i­na­tively put to­gether. The stag­ing con­stantly ques­tions the cost to in­ti­macy and per­sonal re­la­tion­ships when they are played out in a pub­lic arena, and the act­ing from a crack cast lays bare ten­sions be­tween pri­vate pas­sions and po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency.

There is no es­cape: we are forced to con­tem­plate the part we play in the soap opera-ish spec­ta­cle of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics.

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