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.


  1. Rene

    November 23, 2009 at 10:55 am

    the wonderful world of theater…thank you for sharing.
    the show seems to satisfy our inner deeply embedded
    needs for belonging, mental participation, voyeurism and
    knowledge all at once.

  2. lucy

    November 28, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    alistair, are you alive?

  3. Brian (DocSwill)

    December 13, 2009 at 9:15 am

    Oh wherefore art thou dear Alistair?

  4. Kristian

    December 13, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Another beautifully written post, Alistair. Always a
    pleasure to read. I’m even going to put you on my
    blogroll 🙂

  5. Colin

    December 14, 2009 at 7:36 am

    A mutual friend from Holy Island said that you are having a hard

    “Sweet are the uses of adversity,
    Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
    Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
    And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
    Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
    Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”

  6. ALIen

    December 14, 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Alistair, greetings from the Big Apple.

    I hope you are having a good trip
    (in all meanings of this word 🙂

    Please have a good XMas and a happy New Year!
    I hope you are not having a hard time
    as Colin suggested above.
    I think these are just rumours, a snowball effect.
    How can anyone so gorgeous and talented be sad?


  7. Athene

    December 15, 2009 at 2:08 am

    To my darling… we are all near. When you come back from the green. x

  8. Amila Situge

    December 16, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    this is about buddhist watch telly…. yes of course, I’m a buddhist & I do watch telly. There are no . Its all about good and bad, itsn’t it?

  9. Athene

    December 18, 2009 at 4:05 am

    Another one to bring you back x

  10. Jo

    December 22, 2009 at 8:52 pm

    Alistair, you’re worrying me now, it’s been sooo long. Hope you’re ok?
    Speak to us soon. x

  11. L.

    December 23, 2009 at 1:56 pm


    I do not know what is wrong, and it is none of my
    business, really, but I like watching you and reading
    you and, basically, I hate the thought that you are
    not well.

    So I hope that a virtual hug from a complete stranger
    might put a wee smile back on your face.

    Lots of love


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