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Review: Tweeting, taking photos and the audience on stage, it's the Roman Tragedies experience, Barbican Theatre

Roman Tragedies, Barbican: About to begin and a warning

Last year's King's of War, at four and half hours long, was just a warm up for Ivo Van Hove's Roman Tragedies in which Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra have been simmered down to a six hour single play. But this isn't just six hours of Shakespeare in Dutch (with English subtitles) Van Hove has taken the notion of a theatre 'experience' (read: long or multiple plays in one day) and then broken the taboos of theatre-going.

Phone off during the performance? Oh no, tweeting and taking pictures is actively encouraged. The traditional 15-20 minute interval has been replaced with a series of 3-5 min scene changes - the voice of an MC tells you how long until the next one. Not that it matters, you can pop out to stretch your legs or take a comfort break whenever you like.

After the first scene change you can change seats or even opt to find somewhere to perch on stage if you wish. There isn't on-stage seating - this production has made that passé - you just find a chair or sofa or something else that is part of the set. There's even a café/bar counter towards the wings where you can purchase a drink or a snack to enjoy during the performance.

Roman Tragedies, Barbican: Spot @weez and @naomi_jw centre stage

Because the Barbican stage is so big and the set made up of different areas Van Hove once again uses camera's to beam close ups of the actors on a large screen above the stage so you never miss a thing. Once the audience is invited up they become part of the spectacle their reactions and concentration caught in the close ups. It raised a few laughs at times. 

All this serves to put Roman Tragedies firmly on the awards list for 'theatre experience of the year' and for very good reason. It is an experience and one you'll never forget. While it's not necessarily a production to see to get the nuances of the individual plays - there are periods where it starts to wash over you somewhat - you do, however, get a good sense of the narrative and dramatic tensions. And in allowing the audience on stage it serves to demonstrate how public politics and political life is.

It is a production with a handful of really memorable scenes (and moments of startling performance) rather than a whole. Hans Kesting, who was superb as Richard III in King's of War, in this plays Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra and pretty much steels the show. He got a spontaneous round of applause at one point.

Roman Tragedies, Barbican: The final countdown

There are similarities in production style with King's of War, the battles and fighting - other than the odd office-like scuffle - have been stripped out. At times of war, we instead get a slightly darkened stage and thunderous drumming. The murders are bloodless, stylised instead by each victim having a murder scene photo taken which is projected onto the screen together with their historical equivalents birth and death dates. The ticker screen, where the subtitles appear, not only periodically tells you how long until all the deaths but when one is imminent counts down. It heightens the drama to a point but the lack of blood is always going to be a bit of a disappointment for me.

In the end it was more the novelty that carried me through - the final scene leading up to Cleopatra's death did feel disproportionately long after everything that had gone before but when the actors all took to the stage for the curtain call (the audience having retaken their auditorium seats for the final segment) you got a real sense of the scope and scale of what they and the tech crew had achieved. I'm giving it four and a half stars. It was at the Barbican for just a few performances but as Van Hove has revived this production before so it could well be back.


Roman Tragedies, Barbican: Deed is done

I chose not to go on stage, primarily because it was fun viewing actors, audience and all from a good vantage point. It was also fun to spot fellow tweeps going up on stage - and some celebs from the world of theatre and acting. Playwright Simon Stephens, found one scene particularly amusing and, even though he was stood towards the back of the stage, could be heard laughing from the middle of the stalls. You'll have to wait until my 'That was March in London theatre-land' post to get the full list of celebs that I spotted in the audience - there were a lot - but it added to the uniqueness of the experience.

At one point Eelco Smits passed Simon Stephens on the stage - Smits played Brutus among other characters. The two have worked together in the past with Smits starring in Stephens' play A Song From Far Away (which was directed by Van Hove) and there was something meta in that.


I must confess that I was a little worried about how distracting it might be with people taking photos and tweeting (including the little that I did) - there's a reason why it's not normally allowed after all. However, other than a small handful of photos I took and the odd tweet I felt compelled to concentrate on what was going on and most people, it seemed, were of the same mind, at least I was never aware of phone glare and no one forgot to turn off their flash.