Yesterday, I went with some friends to see The Roman Tragedies at BAM. This was a 6-hour distillation of <i>Coriolanus</i>, <i>Julius Caesar</i> and <i>Antony and Cleopatra</i>. It was performed in Dutch with English titles. And it was absolutely amazing. One of the most memorable, remarkable, and entertaining theater experiences of my entire life. Some things about it, in no particular order:
Theater-goers were allowed walk onto the stage during scene changes and find seats there, where many small screens showed the videography of the play with the subtitles. You could buy food and drink on stage and in the lobby where there were other screens. But the best view was definitely from the actual theater seats. Being on stage, in many ways, made it harder to see and figure out what was going on. Being in the lobby made it too removed. In a play all about politics and political theater, this, in itself, was an interesting commentary–if you’re too close to the action, it becomes harder to understand. There is some happy medium for viewing the play of politics.
Videographers and video editing were a major part of the performance. Some of the action took place up front on stage, while other parts of it took place where the audience could not see it well, and so only watched the projection of it on a big screen above the stage. As the performance went on, the videographers became a more and more integral part of the play. This was best exemplified during Marc Antony’s funeral oration, when he very deliberately “plays to the cameras”. Instead of standing in front of a bank of microphones as Brutus has done, he plucks one of them and sits in front of the podium, as if the fact of Caesar’s death has exhausted him, then grows in volume and energy as the speech goes on.
Then, later in the play, the action does take place right in front of the seated audience, but the cameras go in for close ups, for instance, of Cleopatra’s grief. The audience is torn between watching the bodies of the actors on stage, and the close-ups on their faces, and invited to ask: which one is the “real” story. The close-up is vivid and personal, but cuts out context, while the context is more bloodless.
The actor who played Marc Antony was amazing, though I am predisposed to love all Marc Antonys. Both he and the woman who played Cleopatra were taller than the other cast, making them, truly, the giants that Octavius calls them after their death. They are larger than life, and almost, too much for life.
Most of the time, we watched from seats in the balcony, but we watched the first half of <i>Julius Caesar</i> from the lobby, which made us feel rather removed. We watched the first half of <i>Antony and Cleopatra</i> from the stage itself, which was a strange experience, as I mentioned before, but also brought us very close to the physical reality of the actors. Marc Antony himself was so very attractive (and half-naked most of the time I was on stage) that it was kind of overwhelming, which worked for me not just on the level of enjoying looking at him, but also on how the up-close reality of a charismatic person works.
Cassius, Casca and Octavius, among a few other roles, were recast, and rewritten as women, which was marvelous. All of those characters’ attributes come across differently when they are women. Cassius’s mix of drama, venality and intelligence, as well as her relationship with Brutus, play quite differently coming from a woman. Octavius, especially, was an inspired gender switch. One senses in the plays and the history, a bit of envy from Octavius, that Julius Caesar and Marc Antony are such virile men: consummate soldiers, lovers of Cleopatra, larger than life figures, while Octavius was plagued with poor health, and a sort of chilly demeanor. Casting her as a woman makes those supposed failings even more poignant. There is no way for her to be a virile man, so she must get her power elsewhere.
Sexual expression was also used to great effect. After giving Octavia to Marc Antony, Octavius kisses her in a very non-sisterly way, while Marc Antony watches impassively. This, at first, seemed odd–why was he not reacting? But I think it was things like this that underscored the role of gossip in the political arena–did Octavius really have a sexual relationship with Octavia? We’ll never know, but the rumors will never die. Was Marc Antony watching the reality, or only being made aware of the rumor?
Throughout the play, the compressed action is shown on a ticker-tape across the bottom of the screen hanging above the proscenium. During set changes, this sometimes took the form of countdowns to the various characters’ deaths: 20 minutes until the death of Coriolanus, 300 minutes until the death of Marc Antony. It was funny, and also poked fun at the audience, because we go to a tragedy to see a death, and so it’s telling us how long we have to wait to get the payoff, that we bloodthirsty plebs are waiting for.
And that was one of many types of humor used during the play. Coriolanus’s relationship with his mother was played for pathos and laughs. Indeed, many lines funny, and read as funny, but did not undercut the seriousness of the drama and the subjects. Near the end, Enobarbus is wracked with guilt at having abandoned Antony, and he rushes through the auditorium, out through the lobby, and into the street in front of BAM, with cameras following. He has a very dramatic breakdown on the street, while the camera alternately looks at him and random passers by who are seeing this with no context at all. In many ways, that scene was the climax of what this sort of production was capable of. From there on, it was the inevitable journey from Antony’s death to Cleopatra’s, and the end of a six-hour journey, which did not have a wasted minute.
Over the curtain calls, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changing” plays, a bit of on-the-nose irony, because these plays, these 400-year-old plays about 2000-year-old Roman politicking, are as relevant now as they have ever been, and as relevant with respect to American politics as it probably is to Dutch. The times aren’t changing at all.