[2014075] Roman Tragedies

[2014075] Roman Tragedies

Toneelgroep Amsterdam @ Festival Theatre

2:00pm, Sun 2 Mar 2014

On the third of September last year, there was a little Festival get-together where Artistic Director David Sefton had an on-stage chat with Katrina Sedgwick; as part of their “conversation,” two of the headline acts for the 2014 Festival were announced.

Those two announcements had me more excited than just about any other Festival launch ever.

One, in particular, had me literally squealing with excitement (during the announcement, no less) – but I’ll write about that later. The other was Roman Tragedies, which Sefton loftily announced as one of his Top Ten Shows of all time. And whilst the name of the performance meant nothing to me at the time, two things sold it to me: that it was a trio of Shakespeare plays, and that it was a durational performance.

Now, I’ve got a real love affair with durational shows: The Seven Streams of the River Ota in 1998 was my first (and there’s a lot of emotion associated with that), and I now recall And on the Thousandth Night… a lot more favourably than I expressed at the time. Roll in a bit of Bard, and I was instantly committed to the show… but six hours is quite a roadblock in a Schedule, so I picked the day which impacted other potential shows the least, leading to my acquisition of a ticket for the final performance of Roman Tragedies in Adelaide.

It also meant that I had to put up with two days of people frothing and raving about how good it was via every form of media to which I was exposed.

No matter: on Sunday afternoon, My Time had come. After bumping into fellow Angels Geoff and Sorayya in the foyer, we elbowed our way to the front of the crowds: our intention was to rush the stage for the much-vaunted audience-amongst-the-actors location. Sadly, our manoeuvres were in vain; a stage manager politely informed us that there was to be no on-stage seating until the first set change (about twenty minutes into the performance). Slightly engrumpled, we sat down at the edge of the front row… we were getting prime positions, damn it!

Just in front of us was the orchestra pit, which was crammed with percussive instruments of mostly large size… something which became ear-bleedingly apparent when, with no warning whatsoever, one of the two percussionists in the pit started hammering away at the thunderous drum as a way of introducing the war that opens Coriolanus.

As a narrative primer rolled across multiple red LED moving message signs, the cast ambled onstage and then leapt into a enactment of Coriolanus’ first Act. Actors were miked, and black-clad camera operators roamed the stage capturing the action for projection (with subtitles, as the Shakespearean text has been updated into Dutch) onto screens that served the audience in the auditorium, as well as those who ventured onto the stage. And it’s lovely theatre – rich and nuanced and entertaining, even given the modern overhaul and language barrier – but, if I’m completely honest, that first Act just washed by.

I was waiting for the scene change. Then, at the eighteen minute mark, the house lights came up and the MC gently announced that the audience could join the actors onstage. Geoff and Sorayya and I, in a manner completely not befitting patrons of the Arts, rushed the stage.

Initially, there weren’t too many members of the audience that took the opportunity to hop up onstage – there were still a few seating spaces unused. And from my vantage point, the view was (understandably) different… especially those moments when you find a camera pointed directly at you, with your my ugly mug projected onto the big screens in the background of a scene.

Whilst sitting on the stage was certainly novel, it didn’t really work for me: I found all the craning and twisting required to watch both the action and the translation to be too much exertion for me, especially given the six-hour length of Roman Tragedies. And so, at the second scenery change (forty-nine minutes in, according to the programme), I wandered back into the front row of the stalls, near where I’d sat during the first scene; my neighbours were chatty buggers, though, so at the following change (about fifteen minutes into Julius Caesar, the second of the three Tragedies) I moved into a nice, front-and-centre position… which led to a curious, though tangential, story in itself.

In between scenes (as the audience reconfigured itself on-stage and off-), I got to chatting with the elderly German chap next to me; it turns out that he was supposed to have attended Am I the previous day, and was a victim to the strict lock-out policy. As is my wont, I enthused about the performance (though deliberately downplaying my joy, as I didn’t want him to feel like he’d missed too much); I explained the face-burning opening moments to him, and he chirped “Oh! I was supposed to be in the front row as well.” He pulled out his ticket: he would’ve been in the seat right next to mine. Adelaide!

Back to Roman Tragedies: sitting back in the stalls again gave me a much more comfortable view of proceedings, which helped with my appreciation of the plays… and their staging. Tweets from the audience occasionally scroll across the moving message display, and – in the lead-up to the demise of a major character – uppercase characters threaten THREE MINUTES TO THE DEATH OF JULIUS CAESAR. And the death scenes themselves are often harrowing affairs, capped off by garish fanfares accompanying stylised freeze-frames of prone bodies in the centre of the stage… they owed more to Suda51 than Shakespeare. And that’s awesome.

The overall motif of the presentation – that of a 24-hour news channel – is cunningly used to propel the narrative (through confrontational interviews), and is completely justified by Marc Antony’s “Friends, [Romans,] Countrymen” speech, delivered as a powerfully political election pitch. But Roman Tragedies throws out more subversions of Shakespeare (and the theatrical experience): scenes begin deep in the audience seating in the stalls. Apropos of nothing, there’s a Red Hot Chili Peppers dance break. And when Antony’s lieutenant defects to the camp of Octavian, the actor flees the theatre itself and runs out onto King William Street, followed closely by a cameraman who relays Enobarbus’ anguished pleas to startled pedestrians.

Sure, there were a few blemishes around this performance… but they were all on the audience side of the fence, from chatty members in the Stalls to selfish space-hogs on the stage. Oh, and the small matter of someone who left their mobile phone on, with a loud ringtone, buried in a bag beneath a second row seat. No-one in the vicinity recognised the ring-tone as their own, and it took forty-two rings (hey – I’m a little OCD, I count things like that) before someone found the phone and removed the battery.

But by the time the audience is asked to leave the stage (at the 265-minute mark) – ostensibly to facilitate the appearance of a live snake, bringing with it Cleopatra’s death – everyone appeared to be tragically smitten with the production, whether by the sterling production values of the show, or by the lovey-dovey comic tomfoolery of Antony and Cleopatra, or by the stellar cast, or even by Cleopatra’s sublime stilettos (swoon). And that final hour is brutal, in all the right ways: Cleopatra’s wailing upon Mark Antony’s death was easily the most harrowing display of grief I’ve ever witnessed in a theatre… that, alone, would earn Roman Tragedies a standing ovation. The fact that there’s so many other reasons to shower this production with plaudits is just an indulgent bonus.

Bah. Words are failing me again. Suffice to say that Sefton was right: Roman Tragedies was extraordinary theatre.

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