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