Several years ago in Poland, while watching a production of Ivo van Hove’s modern-dress Shakespeare marathon Roman Tragedies, I witnessed my all-time favorite theatrical moment: a masterful bit of business in which Cleopatra’s snake went astray.
Until then, events had been following their usual, terrible course. The Egyptian queen, shattered by Antony’s defeat, had finally accepted her doom. A frozen image of her lover-general’s dead body hovered above her on a massive screen, and we—all of us—knew that Cleopatra would soon follow him onto the production’s central bier. Handmaidens clustered, bracing for their mistress’s death. And then suddenly, the asp wasn’t there.
A maidservant ran thither and yon, dashing to tables on either side of the wide open space, shouting and laughing, calling for help. Cleopatra, played by Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s regal leading lady Chris Nietvelt, melted into giggles, until finally her girl returned with her poisonous cargo—and the serious business of suicide began. The production had taken a long-familiar moment and extended it, inverted it, exploded it. It was a coup-de-theatre, a masterful comment on the routine absurdity of death.
Or, as it turned out…no. It was simply a mistake.
In most shows, when the key prop gets lost, it ruins the scene. But Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies, a five-and-a-half-hour, continuously performed compilation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, is far too robust for that. Nothing can faze the actors—for nearly six hours, they deliver high-def naturalism while an entire audience wanders literally among them. What’s a snake more or less?
After a half-decade of being the jewel in Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s crown, this radically flexible, quasi-participatory “madness opus” (per BAM’s artistic director Joseph Melillo) finally comes to Brooklyn. For only three days (November 16-18) we can go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House and mingle with Volumnia, Coriolanus, Caesar…and his killers.
Van Hove, his collaborator of nearly 40 years Jan Versweyveld, and video designer Tal Yarden began from a simple premise: They would perform the tragedies straight through without interruption, excise the crowd scenes, then allow the audience to go wherever they liked on the stage. Speaking from a rehearsal hall in Amsterdam, Van Hove recalled the show’s genesis. “We began in 2005, trying to stage Antony and Cleopatra. As I started to study the play, I saw first (of course) the connection with Julius Caesar, and then more and more possible connections with Coriolanus. Before this,” he chuckles, “I had seen only two bad productions—I thought Coriolanus was supposed to be awful. Still, I read it, and it was an eye-opener. Then the idea of having no intermission became central. When I told my actors that, they were silent for two minutes. I thought, ‘No, now I’ve gone crazy.’” It took two years to cut the text, and to collaboratively come up with the format, which appeared, he says, “as when you put white paper in water and get a photo—it develops over time.”
On a massive gray, carpeted set sprinkled with low couches (Ikea by Sartre), theatergoers may lounge, get a thoughtfully provided snack, watch the action on the televisions strewn about, or file their opinions via social media. Our risk, of course, is that as we abandon our spectators’ seats for the actors’ arena, we must edge past the political gladiators, hoping not to obscure the bloodiest bits. In a way, the entire show is an intermission, but one in which you keep an eye on the news ticker above. Woe betide you, for instance, if you pop out to the bathroom right when it is flashing a countdown to Antony’s big speech. The audience first filters onstage during the hero-against-the-ungrateful-mob Coriolanus, colonizing couches like so many jumped-up Roman plebeians. (“The crows to peck the eagles,” Coriolanus would have called us.) Through Julius Caesar, the mob watches avidly, though never, of course, interfering with the famous coup. Finally, in Antony and Cleopatra, the many breathing, reclining voyeurs carpet Cleopatra’s Egypt, a constant visual reminder of lassitude and debauchery.
Van Hove has thought carefully not only about the many moods of crowds, but also about the function of media—a newsdesk at the back shows Yarden’s up-to-date images (Syria has entered the rotation). “For me, these plays were about politics and the political mechanism,” cries Van Hove. “What is power? What is a politician? When does he fail? When does he make the wrong decision?” The rhythm of 24-hour news coverage is, in fact, the dramaturgical engine of Roman Tragedies. “Sometimes,” explains Van Hove, “when you’re on a holiday in July, you are out of touch. Then you discover after a year that a very famous author had died when you were gone. And you missed it!” That sense of accident pervades the piece. For the audience, it can feel like lightness: “We developed the production a little bit like life—people come with a picnic, talk to each other. I said to the actors, ‘I want the same relations as in the Globe.’” Certainly the hiss of opening soda cans, the dashing bathroom breaks, the loafing groundlings does all smack of the anarchic Elizabethan spectacle.
For BAM’s Melillo, simply seeing the show was enough to make him want to invite that anarchy into his building. “A logistical hurdle? That’s putting it diplomatically,” laughs Melillo. “But we’re BAM. This is exactly what we’re here for.” He remembers going to Roman Tragedies in Montreal and knowing immediately how it could come, how it could fit into the Gilman Opera House. Van Hove remembers it slightly differently. “Of course, Joe has seen lots of our things. He has invited us many times.” (Most recently, Van Hove has visited BAM with the elegant, tech-savvy reconstructions of films, like Cassavetes’s Opening Night and Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.) Recalls Van Hove, “I said to him, please come and see it, and when Joe promises something, he does it. Afterward, we had a fantastic dinner together, but all through, he didn’t say anything! I was so stubborn, we ate for six hours….and I didn’t mention it. And just at the end, he said, ‘It’s impossible, no?’ And then in 15 minutes we made it possible.”