Notes on a second viewing of Roman Tragedies

“I arm myself with patience and await the higher powers”

Whilst sitting in the audience for Roman Tragedies on Friday night and before it had even finished, I took advantage of the free wifi and booked myself into Sunday’s show, knowing I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see this most extraordinary of shows again. And instead of writing another review in which I’d just end up repeating myself, I thought I’d just jot down some of the thoughts that came to me both whilst rewatching and on reflection afterwards. Continue reading “Notes on a second viewing of Roman Tragedies”

Review: Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“A people who can neither rule nor be ruled”

8 years ago, I’d barely started to blog, I didn’t know who Ivo van Hove was, Andrew Haydon didn’t know who I was, it was an altogether simpler time. And I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly what it was that made me click on the Barbican’s website to book for a 6 hour long Shakespearean epic in Dutch but I’m glad I did, for it genuinely changed the world for me (in terms of my theatrical life anyway, who knew I’d start going to Amsterdam regularly for theatre!). I ranked the show as the best of the year for me back then in 2009 and I have to say I still think it is the greatest piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.

So going back for seconds was always going to be a risk but it was also something I knew I’d never be able to resist. Not least because in the intervening period, van Hove has become one of the most famous, and arguably influential, directors around. His take on A View From The Bridge was the breakthrough moment but for me, it has been his work with Toneelgroep Amsterdam that has consistently been the most revelatory – Kings of War and Scenes from a Marriage both at the Barbican, Long Day’s Journey into Night and the breathtaking Maria Stuart at the gorgeous Stadsschouwburg. Continue reading “Review: Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”

Review: Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“I did not yet know the value of the throne”

It’s well over six years now since Toneelgroep Amsterdam blew open my tiny little mind with their Roman Tragedies. Back at a time when this blog was in its infancy, back when I ‘only’ saw something like 10 shows a month, back when making the decision to see a six-hour-long Shakespearean epic in Dutch was something surprising. Nowadays of course it is second nature, I regularly visit Amsterdam to see this extraordinary company work and I’ve been to New York to see director Ivo van Hove cast his magic on Broadway too in The Crucible. But it is nice to only have to go to the Barbican to see them too and at just the four and a half hours, Kings of War is practically an amuse-bouche!

My spoiler-free review from Amsterdam is here but so much more resonated with me second time around, so we’re going deeper here folks. As with the significantly worthier The Wars of the Roses (more than twice as long in toto, less than half as good), the impetus for the storytelling comes from merging Shakespeare’s first history cycle, only van Hove goes one further and includes Henry V (and arguably a smidgen of Henry IV Part 2 too). So the overarching narrative becomes one of power – the violence of seizing it, the realities of maintaining it, the struggle to keep it – as played out over and over again in this vicious cycle of dynastic tussles.  Continue reading “Review: Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”

Review: Een Bruid in de Morgen, Toneelschuur Haarlem

“Ik heb nog nooit zoiets merkwaardigs gezien als hoe die twee met elkaar omgaan”

Though considered one of the most important contemporary Belgian writers, Hugo Claus’s renown hasn’t stretched much outside of the Flemish-speaking world. So it is perhaps fitting that I saw Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of his Een Bruid in de Morgen (A Bride in the Morning) at the Toneelschuur theatre in Haarlem in its native language, without the English surtitles that are so usefully provided on Thursdays at their main base in the Dutch capital.

I was well up for the challenge though, not least because the show fell under the auspices of their emerging directors programme TA-2 – nurturing the Ivo van Hoves of the future – and through which I saw Julie Van den Burgh’s extraordinary reinterpretation of Blood Wedding back in 2013. This time round, it is Norwegian Maren E Bjørseth getting the opportunity to work with the ensemble company, taking the show around the Netherlands. Continue reading “Review: Een Bruid in de Morgen, Toneelschuur Haarlem”

Review: Kings of War, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam

“En, denk je dat je veilig bent? De veiligheid van een rillend lam door wolven omringd?”

It’s instructive to look at how we (the British) look at Shakespeare compared to them (the Europeans), especially with rival treatments of the first tetralogy on the horizon. Whereas Trevor Nunn’s answer to the perceived issues of the Henry VI plays is to return to John Barton and Peter Hall’s adaptation from the 60s which adapted them, alongside Richard III, but still into three full-length plays. And then we have Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War, in which Ivo van Hove adds Henry V into the mix, and still manages to be done in an evening (albeit 4 and a half hours later…!)

We’ll see how The Wars of the Roses pans out when it hits the Rose, Kingston in the autumn but Kings of War is alive and kicking at the Stadschouwburg in Amsterdam now and for sheer innovative thinking and intelligent reworking, it’s hard to see how returning to the RSC of the 60s will compare in any sense of the word. Liberated from any notion of textual fidelity or theatrical tradition (in terms of how Shakespeare ‘ought’ to be done, I mean), van Hove and his company infuse something genuinely new into the drama, a fierce modernity resulting from this unruly approach.

And it is really an adaptation, a tracking of the throughline of corrupting monarchical power on a single dynasty in the frame of the country pile from which they rule. Sections are divided by kings, so first we see Ramsey Nasr’s fervent Henry V marking the moral highwater that declines with Eelco Smits’ disinterested dweeb Henry VI (all three parts effectively condensed into an hour) and hits rock-bottom with Hans Kesting’s superbly insane Richard III, the evening’s most mesmerising performance. Continue reading “Review: Kings of War, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam”

Re-review: Scenes from a Marriage, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“I don’t know what my love looks like, and I can’t describe it. Most of the time I can’t feel it”

A bit of an ironic choice of quote as this production is one which made me feel so intensely that after sitting through its four hours on Thursday, I booked again for the Sunday. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s far too short stay at the Barbican is an undoubted highlight of my year – their interpretation of Scenes from a Marriage proving to be a simply extraordinary piece of theatre that I knew I had to go and see again.

My review is here and I have little to add to it, it expresses everything I have to say for once. I am now looking at their programme over in Amsterdam to see what I can nip over and see in their surtitled selection, as I can’t wait for them to come to me again, it will just take too long! 

Photo: Ivo van Hove

Review: Scenes from a Marriage, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“It seems like you two are going through something of a rough patch”

Stripping away all the technical innovation that has characterised Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s last two visits to London, Ivo Van Hove’s take on Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is not just an extraordinary reinterpretation of a seminal classic but also one of the most exhilarating pieces of theatre you could hope to have the privilege to see this year. Utterly reinventing the space of the Barbican’s main theatre and toying with conventional modes of story-telling, I spent most of the astonishing second half in a state of near constant goose bumps.

From the beginnings when we’re colour-coded by wristbands into three groups, it is clear something different is afoot. Jan Versweyveld’s design splits the stage into three rooms, connected by a central chamber into which we can occasionally peer, and the first half sees the audience progress through the areas, simultaneously witnessing a scene in each. Each scene features Johan and Marianne and the implosion of their picture-perfect marriage but van Hove has three different couples play the roles at different points in their relationship. Continue reading “Review: Scenes from a Marriage, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”

Review: Antonioni Project, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“Wie tegenwoordig voor mooie dingen geeft?”

Featuring the return of Toneelgroep Amsterdam to the Barbican, Antonioni Project is another multimedia extravaganza from the Dutch theatre company who blew many, including me, away with their six-hour Shakespeare epic, The Roman Tragedies. Under Ivo van Hove’s direction, they have built up a sterling reputation as one of the leading European companies with their innovative blending of film-making techniques into more traditional theatre and creating a whole new theatrical experience for the audience.

This work pulls together three of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s films, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, with their common themes of couples struggling to reconcile notions of love with the reality of sex in a changing world that they feel estranged from due to their extreme materialism. The narratives of the three films are mixed, with characters from each interacting, I’d recommend reading the programme beforehand whether you know the films or not just to give you a bit of context that will prove invaluable. Continue reading “Review: Antonioni Project, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”

Review: The Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“Who amongst us here would not want to be a Roman?”

At first glance, this might not seem the easiest way to spend an evening: three Shakespeare plays back-to-back, lasting six hours and performed entirely in Dutch. However The Roman Tragedies is probably one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences of the year. Presented here at the Barbican by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the foremost Dutch theatre company, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are performed consecutively, as per their timelines which gives a pleasing flow to the evening: there’s a real sense of a grand narrative to the whole evening, of the developing nature of politics and democracy and how it is communicated to the masses.

It opens on a large stage with the cast spread over a number of sofas and ministages, and the play is delivered in a normal fashion with surtitles provided on a large screen above. Then as the first break approached, some consuls appeared in the middle of the audience to deliver their scene, giving you the first indication that this would be no ordinary production. During that first break (rather than normal intervals, the action is interspersed with short breaks), the audience were invited to come onto stage and watch from the sofas: there was also a bar where you could buy a drink and computers to check your email, you could really immerse yourself in the action and become part of the play, a citizen of Rome if you will, whilst the political debates of war and democracy rage around you. I particularly loved the scrolling news flashes which reminded us of the length of time until the deaths of each of the key characters, it was so witty I didn’t even mind that it was 295 minutes until Cleopatra’s death! Continue reading “Review: The Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”