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if you are Learn'd, Be not as common Fooles if you are not Let them have cushions by you

Finally, I saw something at the theatre that I really liked. Something that was actually theatre rather than just a nicey-nicey radioplay with sets.

Of course, it wasn’t English – it was Amsterdam’s main theatre company Toneelgroep on tour – but wherever it came from it was wondrous. It was a happening, an experience, a real 3D theatrical event.

Six non-stop hours of Shakespeare – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Anthony & Cleopatra – all one after another. In Dutch.

The Barbican stage was all opened up with seating areas, tables, places to buy coffee, drinks, snacks. There were television screen all over and the actors were filmed live as they acted in different places and the images screened above the stage. Katie Mitchell uses the same techniques in her shows at the National and the stage reminded me of William Forsythe’s Kammer/Kammer which I saw at Sadlers Wells a few years back. But the genius touch with this show was that the audience were encouraged up onto the stage to watch the action from the seats and sofas on stage.

The six hours were broken up in to 20-40 minute chunks and music would play and a voice would invite us to move around, maybe buy a beer or a brownie, chose where to sit. Sometimes I was in the auditorium, sometimes right at the back of the stage looking out, or right at the front, a metre away from the actors.

This was wonderful for me because it removed the terrible envy i feel of good actors – that nagging desire to want to be on stage and be part of the gang. I was part of the gang momentarily.

And this was the point of the show. All these Roman tragedies are concerned with politics and the role of the ‘people’ in the machine of politics. Bringing the audience into the production was a neat analogue of this. It also balanced the fact that the director had (mercifully) chosen to cut all the scenes and characters that represent the plebians in the plays. So no clowns, no prostitutes in A&C, no artisans and weavers in Coriolanus and JC. This made it bearably long (I never once felt bored – partly because I was on stage supping beer or moving around) and concentrated us on the powerplays of individuals thinking they were acting for noble reasons.

The genius of Shakespeare (and I talked about this here about another JC at the Barbican) is that he is sophisticated enough to be ambivalent. For Brutus, Cassius AND Mark Anthony to be all be admirable in their own ways. This production took a risk (it’s a risk constantly making people look away from live action to screen) but that looking away and mediation of message through media was also part of the subject.

I loved it. If it comes your way. Immerse. You don’t even need to bring sandwiches. You can buy them on stage.

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