- Roman Tragediesperformed by Toneelgroep Amsterdam
For an English-speaking audience member familiar with Shakespeare’s plays but not fluent in Dutch, watching Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragediesis—among other things—an exercise in doubleness. Van Hove and his dramaturgs have stripped the Shakespearean source texts of exposition, battles, and most hints of sentiment to prepare three unified Dutch-language adaptations that focus almost exclusively on politics, leavened by sex. The actors who inhabited these texts during the performance’s five-and-a-half-hour traffic on the Brookyln Academy of Music stage were dressed entirely in contemporary clothes, and most of the time the company could be mistaken for a Dutch diplomatic mission. Indeed, the superficial effect of Roman Tragedieswas to communicate a resolutely twenty-first century sense of political life: conspiracy, diplomacy, manipulation, romance, and violence were all rendered with the urgency, physical behavior, appearance, and tone of modern affairs of state.
Language in particular was a key source of the doubleness of the Roman Tragediesexperience. For the most part, the English supertitles did not provide the language of Shakespeare’s plays, but instead lines that had been translated back into English from the Dutch adaptation-translation. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s plays might have experienced disorientation upon seeing recognizable configurations of characters following familiar narrative lines (despite frequent editorial skips and jumps), but doing so simultaneously in a foreign language rendered in unfamiliar English. Early in the experience of the performance, I occasionally had the vertiginous feeling that I’d lost the ability to understand English; later, more ecstatically, the feeling that sometime in the last few hours I’d learned Dutch.
However, there was another duality at work in Roman Tragedies, one that had to do with the visual, and even physical, life of this highly theatrical production. This duality manifested itself in the show’s most notorious feature—its invitation that audience members come up on and move about the stage throughout the evening—as well as in its much less discussed use of multiple media. Although these two features would seem [End Page 728]far removed from the aesthetics of what theater scholars understand as stage realism (they more clearly evoke and appropriate aspects of Brecht’s theater, or Boal’s), the playful theatricality of the production’s non-realistic performances was continually juxtaposed with cinematic images that rendered the same performances as psychologized and realistic. In this intensely multimedia production, the frame of the video screen often organized what the onstage performance consistently disrupted: psychologically plausible encounters between realistically performed characters.
One of the most talked about aspects of this much talked about production was the fact that many members of the audience ended up on stage with the actors. The audience began the performance conventionally seated in the house. However, following the first scene of Coriolanusa smooth-voiced Master of Ceremonies invited audience members to join the performers on stage (he would continue to make informative announcements during scene breaks throughout the performance). The stage featured a collection of carpeted platforms, sofas, and chairs, so there were inviting spaces for those inclined to a more environmental experience—though not enough space on BAM’s stage, unfortunately, for all those who sought to join the action. That there was no food or drink allowed in the house, but a full bar on each side of the stage, was another lure.
In the midst of this resolutely contemporary production...