Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

If I wrote a review of Roman Tragedies it would just be 1000 words of gushing (not in the vaginal sense). So: a couple of random collected thoughts, based on other people’s tweets about the show cos I lack originality.

And it’s not an RSC or Globe production. And it’s not in English. Rejoice.

Everyone apart from the English (basically van Hove and Ostermeier) has been making fucking amazing Shakespeare. Van Hove’s and Ostermeier’s Shakespeares might only be a few productions but how many English Shakespeares match up to them? Robert Icke’s Hamlet. And I can’t name any others.

If anything, the RSC’s Rome season (don’t @ me, I haven’t seen it) is proof that in some ways we’re further back than Brook’s Dream. In this country, we continually get caught up in stupid arguments about how we should perform Shakespeare and I think that just sets us further back. From an academic perspective, I’m sure Shakespeare’s Globe has been useful in understanding original performance practices, etc. But it’s been extremely damaging to the way we perform Shakespeare and the debates we have around theatre.

Shakespeare’s Globe might have produced one or two gems over the years but most of it, particularly under Dromgroole, was dire and bland. I say this as someone who was dragged to the Globe several times a summer as a teenager by my parents: if you want to make someone not like theatre, the Globe is the way to do it (in fairness to my parents, they did also take me to see Top Girls and ORESTEIA).

It doesn’t matter if not one single person who works at Shakespeare’s Globe believes that they hold some level of authenticity because they use period dress or are a vaguely accurate reconstruction of the actual Globe or have Shakespeare in their name. That idea of authenticity will always be associated with the Globe in the minds of its audience and probably in the minds of its board.

And when you criticise it, people look at you like you’re stupid because they somehow seem to think that you’re criticising the original practices themselves (‘no, you don’t understand, there were no women on stage in Shakespeare’s day’) when you’re actually criticising the reasons why we’re performing Shakespeare this way.

I’m not saying we have to demolish Shakespeare’s Globe. But it has bogged down the debate around performing Shakespeare. Part of what Ostermeier and van Hove have to their advantage is being able to be more liberal with cuts and adjustments to the text because they’re using translations anyway. But they also have national ideas about performing Shakespeare that aren’t weighed down by two theatres that have this pretend closeness to Shakespeare, this fake added authenticity. I like to imagine that they don’t even need to worry about period dress debates. Lucky them.

Ok. So. There are arguments to be made that there might be different attitudes to diversity in the Netherlands that we aren’t aware of or that when you have a company of actors all permanently employed by your theatre it’s hard to introduce diversity.

But I don’t think those are good enough excuses. They just aren’t.

Perhaps the truth is that when something like Roman Tragedies comes along, it’s such a breath of fresh air compared to the kind of Shakespeare available to us at the RSC or the Globe, we don’t want to admit that it’s problematic. Very few people (Donnelly excepted) are prepared to raise the issue of diversity in the Toneelgroep rep because we don’t want to admit that this genius work of art is about as diverse as a Trevor Nunn show.

Critics and other theatre makers are glorifying Roman Tragedies (rightly so) without discussing the problematic elements: the fact that the cast is entirely white. If it was just another play at the NT of course we would criticise it. But when it’s the most important Shakespeare production since Brook’s Dream we don’t want to think of it as problematic.

I don’t want Ivo van Hove to stop bringing shows to London. We (‘we’ = critics, tweeters, bloggers, theatre-makers, theatre people) just have to make sure we don’t forget how lacking in diversity his ensemble is. I’m sure no one would ever look at Roman Tragedies and think an all white cast was the norm. But the fact that the best Shakespeare of our time has an all white cast, regardless of where the production came from and what the scene might be like there, is a sign of how far we have to go.

This sounds so obvious but when we hold up Roman Tragedies as the genius work of art it is, we have to make sure we don’t forget how problematic it is.

I want to begin this bit by clarifying that Chris Nietvelt is a bloody brilliant Cleopatra. All the members of the company do a great job and I don’t want to cast any aspersion on them.

But Cleopatra should not be played by a white woman. I don’t care if you can show me research that says that Cleopatra was white in appearance or remind me that she had white ancestors (several recent studies have concluded that she was black in appearance FYI). That doesn’t matter because historical accuracy doesn’t really matter. Not just in this production, but historical accuracy doesn’t really matter to me much in general.

There are very few plays where it matters that the actor playing a role looks a certain way (eg King Charles III) but lots of plays have been corrupted in public consciousness with ideas of how certain characters look that we don’t question any more (eg most of Shakespeare’s characters).

The facts are as follows: Cleopatra is a powerful African woman. Cleopatra, not just in Antony and Cleopatra, but in films, TV programmes, even fucking cereal adverts, is consistently played by white women. Chris Nietvelt shouldn’t be the best Cleopatra I have ever seen. It’s not any white woman’s place to play Cleopatra.

It so happens that right now Josette Simon is playing Cleopatra in Iqbal Khan’s production at the RSC right now, but that isn’t the norm. Harriet Walter played Cleopatra at the RSC in 2006 wearing period dress, a Halloween-costume style wig and trying-to-be-exotic eyeliner. Recently she wrote about discovering the role: ‘To me Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Mata Hari, the erotic, black-eyed woman on Edwardian postcards, impossible for me to get near.’ Hmmm.

I’m not sure if it’s my place to argue that Cleopatra shouldn’t be played by white women (or men, for that matter). Of course, it’s what I believe. But there’s a fine line between taking ownership of a discussion and standing up for the rights of others. To me, white women playing Cleopatra feels like cultural appropriation and a form of metaphorical blackface. I don’t think I have a right to try and define cultural appropriation and metaphorical blackface are. I’ve said what I meant to say, and I think that’s enough.

I didn’t see Michael Boyd’s histories but I find it really hard to believe that it was better than this. Plus Michael Boyd had the advantage of directing the best part of the two tetralogies. All that links the Roman plays is that they’re a) tragedies and b) set (partly) in Rome.

Roman Tragedies doesn’t pretend to focus on narrative. For the most part these are three separate stories. The staging reflects that this isn’t Kings of War. The open invitation to the audience to sit onstage and take photos reflects that this isn’t a piece of narrative work. You could never do Kings of War like this because it’s too plot heavy, with far fewer Mark Antony moments. The focus of Roman Tragedies is on heightened dramatic moments. Coriolanus knocking over tables, disrupting meetings. Caesar dying, Antony’s funeral oration. Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the snake.

The longer Roman Tragedies is the easier it has to be for the audience to slip in and out and not miss stuff. And even if you stay in the theatre for the whole thing, there is no one spot where you can sit and catch every single detail. That’s the nature of this kind of theatre and that’s part of what makes it so special.

And a couple of other tweets that I just really like:

[fyi no idea who the above person is I literally just searched ‘roman tragedies’ on twitter and this was this first result but it’s interesting as fuck]


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