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Taken separately, the elements that make up Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies are old hat. Shakespeare in business attire? Seen that. Video monitors flashing live feeds and news clips? Yawn. Using Coriolanus et al. to throw light on America and the West’s military adventures and decline? Dramaturgy 101. Even the relational-aesthetics immersive tactic is familiar to those who have wandered through Sleep No More and its spawn. And yet: Put all these postmodern parlor tricks together, cast an expert 17-member Dutch ensemble and orchestrate the crap out of it, and you’ve got a bona fide event socialogique.
First, I should describe the physical setup, since it’s good to know before you go—which you won’t, because Roman Tragedies is sold out and ends it run on Sunday. You enter BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House and pick a seat in the mezzanine or orchestra. A large video monitor above the proscenium shows the action of the play up close. Digital screens hang to the left and right of the stage. These will display supertitles. That’s important, because the text of the evening—condensed versions of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra—is all in Dutch. The supertitles are not Shakespeare’s English, but modern translations of the Dutch. After approximately 20 minutes of Coriolanus, an emcee tells us we can join the actors on the stage, sit on couches, buy food and drink from bars on the stage, and follow the action on numerous monitors, or inches from the performers themselves. There’s a computer station where you can post on Facebook. You are encouraged to tweet your experience, and tweets are relayed to the audience on a long red digital crawl. You can come and go as you please; there are brief scene changes throughout the six-hour performance, but no intermission.
For the next five and a half hours, you can stay put, staring at a monitor showing action happening perhaps 20 feet away; you can wander around the theater, lobby or café; or you can stay put in the regular seating, watching the stage and the screens. The actors, as I mentioned before, are in modern dress, acting in a heightened naturalism that works both for stage and on-camera close-ups. Van Hove has trimmed the plays to 90 minutes or more, cutting out all the crowd and battle scenes, so what we’re left with are politicians in suits—taking meetings, scheming, negotiating, giving press conferences or devolving into messy slap-fights.
The brilliance of Roman Tragedies has less to do with what Van Hove and his company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, have done with Shakespeare’s plays, than what they do with the audience. By simultaneously eliminating the spectator/character barrier and establishing a mediated zone, they create a metaphorical space where you can enact various forms of citizenship. What sort of plebeian do you want to be? An undecided skeptic, moving freely between levels? A couch potato, inhaling information from the 24-hour news cycle? Or a wanna-be player, trying to get as close as possible to the center of power, then taking a picture and posting it to Twitter? Or do you just stay in your seat in the orchestra, maintaining distance?
At six hours, the piece has its longeurs and structural puzzlements. Van Hove clearly was drawn to the male-female struggle of Antony and Cleopatra, but then found bigger ideological fish in the political worlds of the preceding plays. So the night is tipped in favor of Antony and Cleopatra’s imperial dance of death—and this comes after four hours of already grueling viewing. Even though you may wonder why he didn’t cut the final tragedy more, it is interesting to note the shift in the gender balance over the course of the night. We begin in the male-dominated world of Coriolanus (undone, you will recall, by his strong-willed mother) and end several deaths later with Cleopatra and her ladies in waiting. Add to that the fact that Van Hove has Octavius played by a woman, and you see a subtle shift from homicidal patriarchy to more stable matriarchy.
The actors are superb: sexy, cerebral, able to accelerate from wry nonchalance to hysterical screaming (a Van Hove specialty). Jan Versweyveld, Van Hove’s longtime design partner, creates a typically chic-austere environment of gray couches and glass walls, reconfigured for various scenes. Tal Yarden’s video design swings from reality TV to news cycle and art-house film. And the live music by Eric Sleichim—lots of heavy percussion and eerie electronic pulses—adds excellent texture to the action, as well as expressionistic bursts of sonic violence to indicate warfare.
If you aren’t familiar with these plays, Roman Tragedies gains in intensity and freshness, since the narrative outlines remain mostly intact (helpful text from the digital crawl fills in historical gaps). For those of us who have surfeited on Shakespeare, multimedia, political drama, deconstruction and fourth-wall shattering, however, there’s good news: deployed with brio and intelligence, these tired tropes still have the power to halt time and command your attention.—David Cote