“Roman Tragedies: An Almost Live Review”, by Jane Howard

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CORIOLANUS

6:03 War

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We’ve barely begun and I am already aware of how ambitious it was to try to take detailed documentary notes while listening to Shakespeare in Dutch and following surtitles. Here we go: my blow-by-blow review of Roman Tragedies, as it played at the Adelaide Festival, 1st March 2014. Special thanks to those who played along on social media.

 

6:08 Coriolanus is awarded the laurel wreath

At the front of the stage, a television shows us images from the car race happening across town, the local news channel, and ads reminding us all to vote in the state election on 15th March. 

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6:18 Triumphant entry into Rome

 

6:21 Scenery change

At least half the audience takes up the invitation to move onto the stage.

“No need to rush. We still have five hours until we go home.”

As the scene changes, an LED screen flashes the length of time we must wait until each death: 60 minutes to the death of Coriolanus; 167 minutes until the death of Brutus; 322 minutes until the death of Cleopatra. They bring the world of the play closer to ours, too: “Qantas, union bosses in talks,” we’re told. I think we should be seeing this production on election night, with periodic updates on the poll standings.

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6:24 Coriolanus is nominated as consul

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6:34 Coriolanus is removed from the Senate (due to his violent behaviour)

“Neglectful of real needs.”

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Watching this production in the middle of election season is quite strange, not least because of how much it seems no one cares about our election. We go through the motions: the national news nods telling us “South Australia and Tasmania both head to the polls this year”; the corflutes are up; there are more political emails in my inbox. And still, as a state, it feels like we are politically disengaged. Here I am, in a theatre, living and breathing politics, while outside you’d barely know anything was happening at all.

There are so many audience members on stage: moving around, taking photos. I find this quite distracting.

Perhaps it is the level of disassociation I have here that is allowing me – allowing all of us – to really engage with the play in a way that feels impossible with real politics. The governments that lead our states and our country are too real; the consequences are too great; the distance from our own lives seemingly insurmountable. Question Time get to be too much for you? Too much rhetoric, too many fights? Turn it off for another day. Walk away. Here, there is great distance in subject matter, so we remove the distance in emotion. The stakes aren’t our stakes. Here, the arguments are exciting. Actual theatre. Not political theatre. How refreshing to see that.

 

6:45 Coriolanus makes a public apology

Although I am keeping track of the time with my watch, I notice the clock at the back of the stage. It strikes me that it has a similar purpose to the clock in Brown Council’s four-hour production A Comedy. The idea of time in these works is somewhat daunting, but when you have a physical count of how far you’ve come and how far you have to go, it is easier to manage. This is doubly true for Roman Tragedies: we have already been prepared for exactly what is to come by the running sheet in our programs, and by the LED sign flashing information about upcoming deaths.

 

6:49 Coriolanus is banished from Rome

 

6:52 Scenery change

There are so many people on stage: many more than are left in the stalls. From my seat in row F, it seems impossible that there is still room for the action to take place. Because most of the action is happening downstage and being projected onto screens, though, my small group is quite happy to stay put. For now.

Each scenery change happens at the apex of emotionality in the preceding scene. At the top of a speech, the lights snap and elevator music begins. The master of ceremonies nonchalantly tells us that we have five minutes until the action is to start again.

 

6:56 Coriolanus crosses over to the enemy

“More friend than enemy, and as you know, you were some enemy.”

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At the back of the stage a table and video screen becomes a small news studio. As the news is presented I turn away from the screens and watch the other cast members as they conspire on stage. They’re half hidden in the organic movement of the audience: where do the players end and the audience members begin?

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“I think he’ll be to Rome as is the osprey to a fish.”

This production is incredibly funny. I don’t think I expected it to be funny. I rarely expect things to be funny. What does that say about me?

 

7:05 War

Wars unfold in a cacophony of noise and a discordance of lights as the LED screen runs us through the details. Drums rumble through our chests, strobes blind our eyes. It feels, perhaps, like the physical aching pain that you sometimes feel when watching the news.

It is hard to write under strobe lights.

As Coriolanus’s mother Volumina and his wife Virgilia beg him to come home, all I can do is watch Virgilia (Janni Goslinga) as she falls apart: her body crawling into herself, the tears that run down her face threatening to erode her away.

 

7:23 Coriolanus yields to his mother

 

“We shall return to Rome and die together with our compatriots.”

7:25 Scenery change

 

7:31 Death of Coriolanus

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With the death of Coriolanus we have finished the first of the three plays. How strange to think once you would end where we are just beginning. There is so much left unsaid.

 

JULIUS CAESAR

 

7:34 Brutus fears that the people will crown Caesar as King

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There are so many people taking photos on stage: mostly with camera phones, but one man holds a professional camera with a large lens. Another man stands on a ledge on stage, notebook and pen in hand. Within the production, these people have become the documenters of history. I am immediately struck by the realisation that this is exactly what I am doing, too: sitting in the half light of the stalls, writing notes, recording a history of theatre.

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The surtitling is an absolute joy to read. Shakespeare’s text has been pared down for the six-hour format, translated into contemporary Dutch by Tom Kleijn, and then translated back for us in English. There is a poetry to Kleijin’s work that makes it easy to follow, and the need to read along really hones your concentration. While the language is contemporary and the strict iambic pentameter of Shakespeare is gone, occasional lines from the original text still appear. I wonder how this played to a Dutch audience: is there a standard Dutch translation? Would a Dutch audience listening in Dutch pull out those lines? Or is it a quirk of translating from one language to another and back again that allows these things to be seen by an English speaking audience?

So far, Julius Caesar is much calmer than Coriolanus.

 

7:51 Scenery change

Time for a toilet break and a quick lap around the stage: I walk past the make-up counters and a couple of bars. I run into friends, and we hug and smile about how much we are loving the production. I mention how much I appreciate the view from the stalls, one friend tells me how great the audience is being on stage. My friend Christian has camped out at the computers side stage to charge his phone. I pick up some brochures about Toneelgroep Amsterdam and am excited to see they perform on Thursdays with English surtitles in the Netherlands. 

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With twenty seconds left on the clock, I make my way back to my seat.

 

7:58 The conspirators meet

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I’m not certain who this character is. Should I be?

Oh, it’s Brutus. I’m an idiot.

These conspirators meet at night, and they talk about the respect that comes from being a man with grey hair. The gender politics in this world are incredibly complex. When I interviewed director Ivo van Hove he brushed off his gender-blind casting as being an obvious necessity in a modern production: I didn’t begin to appreciate the layers he would bring to the work through gender politics. Where once we would have seen a stage of men, we see women: and of course on a baseline contemporary context this is necessity. Now we see women undefined by their relationship to the men - mother, wife - and instead colleague, conspirator. This, too, allows van Hove to hone his audience in on the subtleties of these women who are mother, wife: deliciously complex, with and without the men who once defined them.

There are two elderly women standing to the side of the stage, eating cake as they watch.

My mind drifts. Pay more attention, Jane.

 

8:09 Portia wants to know what is troubling Brutus. Calpurnia does not want Caesar to go to the capital.

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The scenes start overlapping, multiple conversations sharing space: separation relayed through the audience by actors ignoring those who aren’t physically with us, with video screens splitting up these worlds. I love theatre’s capacity to overload an audience with information, forcing them to choose what they will spend their concentration on. Here, this choice is pushed to the extreme, using hundreds of audience members as extras, and yet our focus remains highly directed by Tal Yarden’s video.

Lies van Assche’s costumes see the cast in whites, grays, blacks, blues and greens. She has no control over the audience.

“I grant you I am a woman. But still the woman Brutus took for a wife.”

I am reading the surtitles too fast: I want to get past the ellipses to the punch line I know is coming.

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8:21 Death of Julius Caesar

The deaths here are not violent: we watch as the person to be killed is surrounded and placed on a trolley which is moved between two glass panels at centre stage. At the beginning of the show we were told to not move between these panels: both a practicality for the production, but also a powerful metaphor –– between those glass panels, lives are lost.

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“How often will this be repeated in the centuries to come, in unknown countries and unknown languages?”

 

8:32 Scenery change

I am trying my hand at being on stage. I have cake and cofee.

 

8:35 Brutus and Antony speak to the masses

At the front of the stage: “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Behind me, a silent Obama gives a speech on television. While Brutus talks, Antony appears to steal someone’s wine, in preparation for his speech: Dutch courage?

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As Antony spills forth his verbal revenge at the death of Caesar, he takes a red pen to a photo of the slain man and violently scrubs over his image. This is a more violent act than any we have yet witnessed.


On stage and in the stalls, we are the crowd. We are the friends, the Romans, the countrymen. Hans Kesling’s performance is miraculous. I am so sad to not be viewing it head on.

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Surely, many are appreciating the invitation to come on stage, although all I want is to be back in the stalls. But perhaps this is how I consume news – half a mind on something else. I suddenly find it strange that I’m not tweeting more, like I do during an election or spill. There is too much happening here for that.

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8:43 Scenery change

As we’re asked by one of the performers to move, I say “No worries.” My friends make fun of me. ‘Straya, mate.

 

8:47 Quarrel and reconciliation of Brutus and Cassius

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The music by Eric Sleichim builds on a quietly underscored dissonance. To my untrained ear it sounds like a finger being run around the edge of a metal urn. It is deeply, deeply unsetting.

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Did we start at six or seven? Six. Half way through.

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The drums rumble and grow. The voices overlap and yell. There are no surtitles: we can only grasp the emotion.

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We see a news broadcast, two conversations, information flashing on the LED screen. The surtitles are back, but I am not sure who is talking. What appeared once to be separate rooms in separate places across the glass panels now seems to be one space as the characters talk to each other.

4,000 dead.

Five minutes until Brutus’s death.

Even in such a big theatre, such a big production, there are so many moments of intimacy.

 

9:06 War

As the war ends, the sound of electricity cracking is heard.

 

9:07 Death of Brutus

Brutus moves between the glass panels, but he is not dead yet. Out; then in again. Dead.

This is the first time I notice that the image of the body freezes when the character is announced as dead. The lack of movement in this realisation of death is sickening.

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9:09 Scenery change

 

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

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9:19 Antony’s presence is needed in Rome

I sit near the pit. The sound I thought was perhaps a finger on an urn is a bow on the bars of a vibraphone.

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Cleopatra and her compatriots are such different women to those we’ve been exposed to so far: no longer women whose power comes through politics, but women whose power is inherited. A Real Housewife. As Cleopatra and Charmain giggle and drink together, this is the first time we see two women conversing, playing, and fighting. They share such a different intimacy to that of the politicians or Virgilia and Volumnia.

 

9:33 Emergency meeting of the triumvirate; restoration of the triumvirate

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I am again struck at how odd it would be, after this, to ever see these plays performed individually rather than as part of a trilogy.

Have I spoke about the performances yet? They are all so overwhelming, I don’t know if I’ve written anything down. Although we don’t share the same language, the emotion comes through in every syllable. Because of the enormity of the space and the production’s use of video cameras, the actors wear microphones: their voices are loud, their performances subtle and nuanced, though they also fill the room. You turn your head away from the main performance, and to the side there is someone else quietly performing, with such presence.

Octavia appears on screen: Hélène Devos’s performance makes her so small, so awkward, so little. I search for her on stage.

 

9:50 Antony leaves Rome with his wife Octavia

I notice my friend Ashton on the back of the screen. She must be following the surtitles along somewhere, but she looks like she is watching the actors directly. She is so engaged. Laughing. Loving it. A joy. Now I know she is there, I am sure I can pick out her laugh.

 

10:03 Caesar breaks the cease-fire with Pompey. Octavia proposes herself as mediator

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10:06 War

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10:08 Caesar defeats Pompey and dissolves the triumvirate

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“I will play football with your eyes.”

“A tasty piece”, say the surtitles. I hear “A lovely bitch.”

 

10:27 Scenery change

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It is strange to see an empty space. But now we have been there, we are familiar with the stage. We know its shape, we’ve discovered its secrets. This detail of knowledge makes the whole theatre feel intimate.

 

10:37 War

 

10:44 Antony and Cleopatra estimate their loss

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Antony runs out of the theatre and onto the street. It is opening night of the Adelaide Festival and fireworks explode above Elder Park: we don’t see them, but we hear them, now the echoes of war. Antony collapses in front of advertising for the very show we are watching: a collision of the investment we have made in this world and the construct we all know it exists in. Pedestrians on the street find themselves accosted by a man yelling in Dutch. He approaches cars moving slowly in heavy traffic.

 

People in the audience laugh.

 

I find it all too intense to do that.

 

I am completely overwhelmed.

 

I feel like I can’t breathe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11:19 Death of Mark Antony

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11:26 Caesar plans a triumphant inauguration in Rome with Cleopatra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 “The depth of our suffering must be as deep as its cause.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is unrelenting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have never seen a weapon on stage. The snake is the first one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11:42 Death of Cleopatra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I stopped. I stopped writing. I stopped taking notes. After the stage is cleared, the work becomes, as I said, unrelenting. I didn’t fully appreciate van Hove’s use of the scene changes as an emotional release until they were taken away. I spent much of the last hour with my heart tight in my chest. As the cast took to the stage for their curtain call, I started to cry. Release, at last.

This is why I do this. This is why I see hundreds of shows a year; write thousands of words a year. Because work like this exists. And sometimes, just maybe, I get to witness it. Almost unbearably rarely. But they’re out there. They’re out there.