'Roman Tragedies' review or 'Lend me your eyes, ears, the whole damn lot!'

Roman Tragedies – Shakespeare (translation: Tom Kleijn)
Barbican Theatre, 17th March 2017

I’m standing beside a coffee machine on the Barbican stage. I’m on my second coffee (I should’ve paced myself better – Roman Tragedies is six hours long) and I’m feeling jittery. I’m not the only one. Marcus Antonius (Hans Kesting – man beast) is standing next to me, waiting to speak at his great friend Julius Caesar’s funeral. In a matter of moments, Marcus Antonius will deliver the speech of his life (‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…’) and bring Brutus’s rebellion to a crushing halt. But for now Marcus is waiting in the wings and he is nervous. And there is nothing that he can do to stop me from witnessing those jitters and fears.

The great joy of Ivo van Hove’s Shakespeare marathon – which roams and rattles through the Roman plays Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra – is found in the moments we would not normally see. For most of the production (barring the opening and closing scenes) we, the public, are let loose on the stage. We are free to walk among these ‘legendary’ leaders – to watch them plot, scheme, rage, love, rise and fall. We see them touch up their make-up, grab a quick sandwich, and greet friends they spot among the crowd. If we’re lucky we might even see the moment following the death of a character, when the actor stands up – solemnly – and leaves the stage. Nothing is sacred in this space. Blood does not spill and the death of a great man brings about only the start of someone new.

This is a production packed with profound political observations – but these fascinating ideas, these carefully woven themes and observations, will spring to mind much later. After the glorious frenzy of Roman Tragedies has passed, you might stop and think about the depth and complexity of performance demanded of each politician. Theirs’ is a life performed not simply to the audience gathered in the stalls – to the public gathered to hear Coriolanus argue his case or listen to Marcus Antonius honour Caesar’s memory – but it is also a performance delivered to the cronies clustered back stage, the cameras hovering on the edges of stage and the family gathered in the wings. Jostling side by side with these characters, we will instinctively come to understand just how deeply embedded the politician’s performance is. And when we smile or joke with one of the actors we will wonder: is that Brutus I am grinning at? Or is it the actor? And what exactly is the difference?  

Later still, we might also come to realise that – in the case of all three Roman plays – the leader is never really the leader, but merely a figurehead for other characters, movements or historical temperature changes far more powerful than themselves. Coriolanus might be a mighty soldier but it is his mother, Volumnia (Frieda Pittoors – gloriously stern and immoveable) who determines Coriolanus’s fate. Marcus Brutus may be the man lined up to usurp Caesar but it is Cassius (here played by an acidly determined woman: Marieke Heebink) who pulls his strings. And we all know who’s in charge in Cleopatra and Antony, don’t we?

These thoughts will dance about in the head long after Cleopatra has laid down her body in furious sorrow. But it is the presence and power of the public that you will feel most strongly as this production surges past, around and through you. One incredible side effect of ‘watching’ and participating in Roman Tragedies is to realise just how little it takes to become used to all this activity and attention. Initially, it feels strange to be let loose on the stage. Where should one sit? And how best not to interfere with the action? But these worries soon melt away and it isn’t long before the stage feels like your own space and the audience gathered in the stalls all but disappears. The longer one performs the less one realises one is performing. It is a frightening insight into the mind-set of any politician, especially today’s leaders who are asked constantly to perform – to the cameras and to the internet – and must, surely, forget that they are performing at all.

Those cameras play an increasingly complex and subversive role in Ivo van Hove’s restless and ingenious production. Initially the cameras seem to lend the politicians great power. Look how large and important they look, projected there above the stage! But Ivo van Hove and his team begin to play clever tricks with the cameras - which catch tiny betrayals that perhaps we were not meant to see. Cleopatra’s serving ladies roll their eyes at their histrionic mistress, or a slight flicker in the face betrays Brutus’s fear. It is not just to the front, back and sides that these politicians must perform but also in constant awareness of the close-up; the absolute control such exposure demands is gruelling and must, surely, place the most awful strain on the head and heart of the person involved.

Despite all these close-ups and all these deaths there is very little emotion expressed or invoked here. The deaths, when they come, are consciously devoid of sentiment. No one is felled. No one even falls. Each leader lies down on a gurney – the same gurney every time, for every death – and accepts their place in the order of things. In this moment Shakespeare’s great characters – Coriolanus, Caesar or Antony – are not people, but merely links in the chain of history. The only time any raw emotion is released in Roman Tragedies is when Cleopatra learns of Antony’s death. By now we are seated in the stalls again, ‘safely’ removed again from the action. Cleopatra’s cry of agony is aimed squarely at us all and there is nothing we can do to escape it. It is if all the cool mechanics of the last six hours have been condensed into one awful moment of human agony. The political has become personal, just for moment. But then Cleopatra gets a snake – a real live snake, that hissing symbol of eternity – and invites her own death, and the awful cycle begins again.