November 22, 2012

The score handed to audience members for Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s ROMAN TRAGEDIES at BAM

pre-show, with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” on a continuous loop

Soon into the first of three Shakespeare plays back-to-back, CORIOLANUS, the audience was invited to go onstage, observe the action close up, and be part of the spectacle for people who remained in the auditorium. The scene on the large screen is taking place in the seating area on the left side of this picture.

The actors spoke only Dutch, with the English translation appearing on the large video screen (and smaller flat screens onstage). The LED screen underneath would periodically offer footnotes, dramaturgical asides, and a countdown toward the deaths in the show.

When a character died, he or she would lie on a platform that slid between the two glass walls at center, and the image of the sprawled corpse would appear onscreen (like a police crime-scene shot) with the birth and death dates.

Battle scenes were represented by one minute of stark lighting and cacophonous loud sound emanating from two percussionists in the orchestra pit.

JULIUS CAESAR proceeded straight out of CORIOLANUS, the actors again dressed in contemporary business drag — here you see Caesar’s funeral oration represented as a press conference.

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA mostly seemed to be taking place in hotel rooms — here, in the opening scene, Marc Antony sprawls on a sofa in his boxer shorts watching a movie on his iPad while cartoons play on the flat-screen TV and his staff sleep off the previous night’s debauch on other sofas.

I had excellent seats in the sixth row on the aisle so I stayed put for most of the show. But during the last scene change, I decided to walk around onstage of the BAM Opera House because, hey, when else would I get a chance to do so? The clocks counted down the time til the next scene began.

Two bars onstage sold food and drinks throughout the show, and next to one of them this actor (Fred Goessens) sat and made announcements keeping the audience informed, in the crisp bland manner of airports or hospitals. (“Cleopatra, to the white courtesy telephone, please…”)

Given permission to take pictures (or Twitter) throughout the performance, the documentarian in me could not resist doing so, which only reinforced the production’s cool reflection of our media-saturated contemporary culture, where nothing happens without people recording it on their smartphones. “Pictures or it didn’t happen.”

After the long slow deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, and after the bows (which included not only the actors and musicians but all the stage hands and, finally, the maestro himself, Ivo van Hove), the show wasn’t quite over yet — onscreen, where you might seen film credits, the departing audience saw a long long series of questions inspired by the issues of the play: a suitable ending for a pitilessly Brechtian production.












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