FESTIVAL – Roman Tragedies – Festival Theatre

Roman Tragedies isn’t just a play, or even three plays, it’s a complete theatrical experience, crafted by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, under the direction of Ivo van Hove. It’s up to you to decide what you want to make out of it, as after the opening sequence, pretty much anything goes. The entire stage space, including the costume, make-up and technical areas, is open to the audience, except for a walkway between two glass walls in the centre. The reason for this specific exclusion becomes apparent as the action continues to unfold and this becomes an integral space, utilised as a linking theme through each of the three plays, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

On stage, comfortable couches and small block stools are arranged around flat screen TVs on which the action is relayed; if your view is obscured you can choose to watch the performance via this medium instead. Food and drinks are available for purchase throughout, so you can sit down with a glass of wine and a piece of cake, while you chat to those around you, take photos, tweet, and more. Exploring the space, you might run into a friend – or make a new one as you bond over the shared experience of revelling in the fun unfolding. Others you won’t see but will know they’re around somewhere because a comment from them has appeared on the twitter feed. It’s like a giant sleep-over movie marathon except instead of bad 80s horror flicks, the entertainment is Shakespeare and it’s live.

If you prefer to remain in the auditorium and watch the drama unfold without getting so up close and personal, that’s also fine. Even for those who do venture on stage for periods of time, an interlude back to the stalls can provide a welcome opportunity to take in the full spectacle unfolding. While the action takes place in various sections of the stage, the majority has been blocked in a way that plays to the traditional audience perspective. There are aspects of the show, including the information scrolling across a digital banner, that are best viewed from this perspective, and the impressive drumming of the bl!ndman group in the orchestra pit is a sight to behold. People tend to move around fairly regularly so, while areas can become cramped at times, it stays reasonably easy to get about and take things in from a number of points of view.

The original text has been translated into Dutch, with English surtitles projected on a screen above the stage, the TV screens, and several other surfaces, so that you’re able to read them no matter where you’ve chosen to place yourself. It is particularly interesting to experience these plays without the traditional rhyme and meter of the Shakespearian language. The cast are uniformly wonderful, most featuring in each of the three plays. In between their scenes you might encounter them relaxing on the couches with audience members or tucking into a spot of dinner. Each of the interpretations of these three classic plays would be interesting and commendable as productions in their own right, even if performed in a more traditional space. Without that solid foundation, it’s unlikely that the overall experience would work so well.

While some may consider the six hour running time a deterrent, it absolutely shouldn’t be, because the time flies by. The reason it works without dragging could be attributed to the production being so well structured, despite the flexible and unique ways available to view it. The boundaries for audience members are clear, a run-down of the scene timings is provided in the program and there are several flagged scene changes scattered throughout which provide the opportunity to plan a trip to the bathroom or bar. Countdowns are also provided for the major events in each show – you’ll know when someone is going to die or give a famous speech, so can plan around that. This is helped by the show being based around Shakespeare’s plays as a lot of people are familiar with the storylines and so can easily keep track of what’s going on despite missing chunks if distracted.

There was a lot of hype leading up to this show and it was very pleasing to find that it was warranted. The ability to adapt it to your own personal preferences and desires as an audience member means that it’s a particularly memorable and special experience.


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