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Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies review at the Barbican Theatre, London – ‘relentless’

Roeland Fernhout, Fred Goessens, Gijs Scholten van Aschat and Marieke Heebink in Roman Tragedies at the Barbican. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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Seven years after it was first seen at the Barbican, Ivo van Hove’s astonishing distillation of three of Shakespeare’s Roman plays into a near continuous six-hour show returns to the same address, launching a Toneelgroep Amsterdam residency that also includes a new stage version of Visconti’s 1943 film Obsession in April and an Ingmar Bergman double bill of After the Rehearsal/Persona in September.

When I first saw Roman Tragedies in 2009, I was new to Van Hove’s work and full of trepidation: how would I survive six hours of Shakespeare, in Dutch, with only intermittent breaks of three to 10 minutes? In fact, I was totally blown away – gripped by the relentless, driving theatrical intensity of the event and the bold, up-to-the-minute adaptation, which has been fashioned into a continuous story arc by the director, his translator and a three-strong team of dramaturgs.

Van Hove has since become a fixture on the international theatre circuit, creating new English language productions of A View from the Bridge and The Crucible and last year making his National Theatre debut with a dazzling Hedda Gabler (set to tour this autumn). His work is also influencing a younger generation of theatre makers: it is perhaps a coincidence, but Robert Icke’s new Almeida Hamlet features a soundtrack full of Bob Dylan, just as Roman Tragedies begins and ends with the singer’s work; both productions feature extensive use of video technology.

Roman Tragedies plays out on what looks like a set in a giant television studio. There’s even an onstage area for make-up stage right, and onstage catering, just as you might get on a film set (though here serving patrons drinks and snacks). The theatre audience is also invited to be the studio audience, able to sit on sofas or stand around the set. The action sometimes moves into the stalls itself, and even (at one point) outside the theatre, as a camera follows Bart Siegers’ Enobarbus to one of the venue’s access ramps. The stage is dominated by a large screen that broadcasts close-ups of many of the scenes, while LCD screens all around the stage play out loops from newscasts, including frequent clips of Trump.

Needless to say, the production – with the actors in modern dress throughout – amplifies contemporary parallels about the corrupting forces of political power. It interrogates the nature of leadership, and the battles (both internal and external) that accompany public office.

The first two plays, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar, are played with a restless momentum, but Antony and Cleopatra becomes more reflective, and is emboldened by a harrowing performance from Chris Nietvelt as a deeply traumatised Cleopatra.

The Dutch ensemble frequently play multiple roles, but other stand-outs include Hans Kesting’s Antony – a picture of loyalty and vulnerability in Julius Caesar who becomes truly commanding as he seizes power, and Gijs Scholten van Aschat’s youthful Coriolanus.

While the surtitles suggest little fidelity to the original Shakespearean language, the intent, sweep and drama make this one of the one of the greatest Shakespeare adaptations I’ve ever seen.

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Epic and exhilarating modern Dutch version of Shakespeare's Roman plays