Sundays are the day for profound spiritual experiences, and on a wet Sunday in 2009, I had one at the Barbican in the form of a six-hour, multimedia, semi-promenade, Dutch-language, English-surtitled, modern dress mash-up of three Shakespeare plays: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra — with a cast of fifteen and a small army of technicians and stage managers to make it all happen.
The show, Roman Tragedies, was the work of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, under the direction of Ivo van Hove, who was still relatively unknown in the UK — but a lot has changed in the intervening years, and Roman Tragedies was the moment where that change really started. Since then, Van Hove has become an increasing fixture on London stages, not least with his bare-stage, blood-showered production of A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic.
Like every Toneelgroep Amsterdam show I’ve seen since, Roman Tragedies massively delivers the things I love in a good theatre trip. Its acting is consistently thrilling, with a genuine feeling of people listening, responding, wanting things from each other. It makes stories which are remote from me in time, language and experience feel completely relatable. It makes me demand more of all the other theatre I see, and of the theatre I’m involved in making. And Roman Tragedies had the added bonus of a real snake, ten minutes before the end, who turned to look at one of the roving cameras following the action and waggled his forked tongue on cue. It was one of the most exhilarating and heart-stopping things I have ever seen in a theatre anywhere.
I’ve followed the company to Melbourne in the past, but not (yet) to the Netherlands (but that’s what my 40th birthday present will be…) The company turns 30 next year, and it will be making three appearances at the Barbican (which OF COURSE I’ve already booked for) — Roman Tragedies is back for three shows only in March (and I’m determined to sit on stage for at least some of it, this time); Jude Law is joining the company for a month-long run of Obsession, based on the old Luchino Visconti film (April-May — we’re going on my 38th birthday); and finally, an Ingmar Bergman double bill of Persona and After The Rehearsal in September. It’s worth no end of living on tap water and economy carrots for the rest of the year.
Visit Toneelgroep Amsterdam online here: www.tga.nl