Roman Tragedies at the Barbican review *****

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Roman Tragedies

Barbican Theatre, 19th March 2017

Right that fella in the pic above is Hans Kesting. And for my money he is the best stage actor in the world (though to be fair the fact that I have only seen a small sub-set  of the total universe of stage actors may lead you to suspect some exaggeration here). Yet I don’t understand a word he says (well maybe one or two). And I have only seen him twice. But I stick by this.

His Richard III in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War last year was mesmerising. His powerful frame crammed into a tiny suit with a birthmark on his face (all that was required to conjure up disability and difference), and using a mirror to expose his soul (did I really just write that) and lay bare his self-hate, he nailed it in my book.

And if anything in this production his Mark Antony was even more powerful. His funeral oration in response to Brutus’s justification was riveting as he prowled around the stage sometimes leaving the microphone and tearing at his tie – frankly I would have done whatever he asked if he were a leader of men in the real world even as I knew he was lying through his teeth. And he wasn’t alone. Eelco Smits as Brutus constantly probing his own conscience, Bart Siegers breaking down outside the auditorium as Enobarbus, Chris Nietvelt’s skin crawlingly needy Cleopatra, Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Coriolanus throwing the ultimate power tantrum. There were many others. The whole ensemble is just extraordinary having worked together under wunderkind director van Hove for many years. The last hour or so of A and C was perfect theatre – they must all know exactly what they are doing but it just felt so utterly and aggressively spontaneous.

The thing is by translating Shakespeare into Dutch and then back into English through the subtitles you can follow all the action whilst still retaining most of the poetry. By hacking all the war scenes out and focussing solely on the rulers and not on the ruled that they generally disdain, the real motives behind the exercise of political power are exposed. Ego, prejudice, love. ignorance, jealously are all laid bare with cool heads and analysis in short supply. By setting the action in a conference centre cum news room (so everything is “on”and visible), and in modern dress, the timeless nature of the exercise of power is exposed. And by allowing the audience to shift around at will, all this can be seen through multiple viewpoints (which you choose) and with us, the observers, becoming the observed/the ruled. The parallels with the populism in the world today effortlessly emerge (as no doubt they did in Shakespeare’s day – the experts can tell you more).

And it is anything but a marathon. Watching episode after episode of the Wire or Breaking Bad or that Game of Thrones cartoon is a bloody marathon yet millions of people do it. This is a breeze by comparison and you can even eat you sarnies and sit on a sofa.

Anyway hopefully you get the picture and can see why the punters and luvvies rave about this.

Of course it isn’t much good telling you this now that this is over but Toneelgroep Amsterdam stays at the Barbican for Obsession with Jude Law as the lead Gino in an adaption of the Visconti film and then the ensemble will bring their take on a couple of Bergman films. And they will I am sure be back again next year and they have the collaborations with Simon Stone and Katie Mitchell on their home turf. Maybe not the same as these genius Shakespeare mash-ups but whatever comes will be mandatory viewing anyway. Just look on their website at what they haven’t brought to London yet from the back catalogue and salivate.

Korn maar op!

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