Sunday, November 18, 2012
Truly brilliant, innovative theater is also deeply humbling, and thus I doubt that I will be able to adequately describe Ivo van Hove's Roman Tragedies, which was performed over the course of six stunning hours by the Toneelgroep Amsterdam at BAM yesterday. I am going to try, nevertheless, if only because I just can't stop thinking about the production, its extraordinary innovations, and its many dense, chewy, interconnected themes. Nonetheless, I don't think there are enough superlatives to apply to this piece. Not in English, maybe. Perhaps in Dutch, the language of the production, which is also currently striking me as the language of the gods. Goeie genade, I'm awed, inspired, amazed, impressed.
Roman Tragedies is a staging of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, which are conceived, the program notes explain, as a continuous performance about the contemporary world of politics. None of the tragedies is presented traditionally--rather, the language has been contemporized (and translations are presented above the stage, as well as on the many, many televisions that are used onstage during the show), as has the setting. Televised news reports break in on the action throughout; death scenes are clean and bloodless and highly stylized. The stage looks very like a particularly generic television newsroom, and, at the same time, very like the waiting room at one of your larger airport terminals. The cast dresses, for the most part, in businesswear: tidy, solid-colored button-down shirts and suits. Makeup is minimal, and the cast gets frequent touchups at a makeup station at stage left. On the stage, there are rows of squarely arranged couches and chairs in neutral tones, tv screens everywhere you look, and, in the center of the stage, two glass panels that face one another, creating between them one of the few spaces in the theater where the audience is not permitted to enter. They are barred from this space for practical reasons: this is where the actors go when their characters die. But then, the spectators are barred from this space for symbolic reasons, too: this is where the actors go when their characters die.
The airport-lounge theme extends to the far sides of the stage, where prepackaged snacks, salads, and sandwiches are available for purchase, alongside a variety of beverages, served up in disposable plastic cups. The audience is invited--encouraged, in fact--to move around frequently during the show: from seat to seat and tier to tier in the enormous opera house; up into the cafe and out into the lobby, where more televisions await; and up onto the stage, where spectators eventually mingled so closely with the actors that it was occasionally difficult to tell which was which and who was where. Spectators are also encouraged to photograph the show, to tweet, and to type their impressions into computer terminals set up to the rear of stage right, behind one of the two bars.
Boiled-down Shakespeare set in the modern world, featuring lots of televisions that are watched by spectators as they use phones and eat food would be merely cool and gimmicky at worst, but the triumph of Roman Tragedies is just how very much it says, and how well it says it. The political arena theme comes through well, of course, but then, there are just so many interrelated threads that emerge over the course of the performance. Among them: what becomes history and what mere pop-culture ephemera, and where lies the divide? What is real, and what is mediated, and where is the divide, there? And do the divides matter? What is the relationship between audience and performer, and how do they merge? Are we truly saturated by the media, and if so, how has that influenced the way we process war, conflict, emergency, death? Have even the most immediate, urgent, serious events become ones that we have distanced ourselves from, or does media work to unite us? Or can it do both at once? Does popular culture give us what we want, or do we merely react to the triggers it has constructed for us? Has contemporary reality been compromised by just how scopic we have become, or have we humans really not changed at all over the course of so many bloody, violent, brutish centuries?
Some of the questions I ask above are ones I came up with my own answers for during the course of the performance. And then changed my mind, and changed it again. Just when I became convinced that watching performers up close, on stage, surrounded by hundreds of strangers (and a few friends, and my spouse) was the most beautiful, ecstatic, communal thing, ever, I realized just how many of us were essentially slumped on couches, sipping beer and watching tv or taking pictures with our cell phones, and I grew uneasy. And even lonely. And then, I reminded myself that just because something is mediated--wars, attacks, disasters natural or not--doesn't mean that it cannot unite us in some ways, just as it can divide us in others. One suffers, mourns, and dies alone, just as one tweets alone; common cultural practices unite us, though. As, sometimes, do hashtags.
I found myself fighting the urge to focus entirely on the projections myself, even though watching the live performers was problematic too, since I speak no Dutch. I needed both; I think we all did. To rely entirely on the actors as they performed live, or to focus entirely on the screens that broadcast their actions, would both have yielded far less of the whole. I rejoiced in the freedom being on the stage allowed me; I just as suddenly needed to head up to the balcony, and sit as far as I could from anyone else for a while. Whereupon I really missed being up on stage. I was relieved, during the last hour, to take a seat in the orchestra and to remain there (as per the instructions to clear the stage and sit for the duration), but then I missed how the stage looked when it was at its most crowded, and felt curiously more self-conscious as a traditional spectator than I had as a wandering, wine-sipping, sandwich nibbling spectator. And whereas I had felt ready to shift back into a traditional audience/performer relationship as Antony and Cleopatra came to its increasingly stagey, campy end, I noticed, once back in it, how newly distracted I felt by the noise of spectators around me. After four hours of watching others watch the action in front of, behind, and around me; after tweeting and watching others tweet; after accepting the movement, actions, and transactions of fellow spectators for the past five hours, I suddenly grew exasperated by the frequent, involuntary grunts and throat-clearings of an older man who chose to sit directly behind me.
The fact that the show ended with a traditional curtain call struck me as positively bizarre--not because the cast did not deserve the roaring adulation it got, but because I felt that we'd all been through far too much to conclude simply by going through the traditional motions. So I came home, sat on the couch, and spent the rest of the evening reading tweets about the production I'd just seen. Does that cheapen the experience somehow? Does that make the experience less real? I sure as hell hope not. Because the last performance of Roman Tragedies is taking place at BAM right now, and as soon as I post this, I'm going right back to the twitter feed to read what today's audience is experiencing. It won't be the same as being there, but weirdly, it'll be as close as I can get.