In taking an intellectual approach to Greek tragedies, Ivo van Hove’s almost four-hour-long digital deep dive leaves little room for emotional thought. A titanic widescreen set from his long-term collaborator Jan Verswyveld doesn’t leave much space on the Barbican stage, either.
Overwhelming in ways which both stimulate and exhaust the brain, there’s no denying the Network and All About Eve duo have delivered another visual spectacle in Age of Rage, but it lacks what draws many people to spend an hour or two – or in this case, even longer – in a theatre: to feel something. After such a lengthy performance in the company of Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, I feel nothing, and by extension, I don’t know how I feel about that.
For those, like myself, who are unfamiliar with the Greek myths beyond some elaborate wooden horse and Troy, Age of Rage chronicles King Agamemnon and his family, beginning with the shameful sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia and ending with the tales of his other children, Electra and Orestes. After one killing comes another, and another, and the vengeance takes hold ad infinitum – accompanied by pounding, grungy drums; scraping metal and jolting choreography.
It’s saying something that one of the play’s most poignant moments comes in total silence, when Iphigenia and mother Clytemnestra embrace ahead of the former’s sacrifice. There’s no need to glance upwards to the caption unit at the top of the towering industrial set, or to keep up with the twisting family relations charted in this epic. It is the collapse of a maternal relationship and an acceptance of unavoidable loss. Another notable performance comes with Orestes (Minne Koole), lashing out and flailing as he goes mad with guilt and shame – a violent depiction of the curse which plagues his family. The story is powerfully told and – bar a few clarifications as a novice to Greek classics – relatively accessible, but what it’s trying to say with this latest staging isn’t as clear.
Vengeance is a terrible thing? Well, obviously, and while there’s a smattering of lines one might ascribe to our current political climate – “if a fool sways the masses with his words, it is disaster for the land”, for example, based on your political persuasion – but it is underdeveloped. I’d also argue we’re far past the point where politics is enacted with vengeance or to punish others for a foul deed. If one was to be ultra cynical, then maybe the dogged pursuit of the Greeks to right a wrong before them incessantly echoes one political party’s desire to undo the work of their opponents when they get to power, but that’s just natural opposition.
This play could have said more. We hear about Agamemnon and others’ attempts to please troops and the masses, but said crowds are never present on stage. If they were, then there’d no doubt be room for social commentary on the pursuit of revenge for an audience, in the absence of a just and legal process to handle wrongdoing. It would certainly make the ‘Apollo ex machina’ at the epic’s conclusion a lot more meaningful than an underwhelming way to resolve a cursed family’s troubles (though in fairness, little blame can be ascribed to van Hove for that ending when it’s in the classics, but it could certainly have more meaning).
I think of the bubbling tank of blood, hanging up in one corner of the stage, as another example of underused theatrics. My guest with me for the evening – admittedly with better hearing and Greek knowledge than myself – informs me it was bubbling away at certain intervals, but could it have been more prominent than being tucked away at the side, visible to those in the stalls but perhaps not by those further back? Granted, there’s certainly a lot of blood and gore in the production as it is – castration, the ripping out of eyeballs, and so on – and van Hove is no stranger to handling that with the shocking darkness it requires (see the equally jet black Les Damnés, also staged at the Barbican), but a prominent pool of blood on stage would make for a striking motif.
Make no mistake: as I have said already, the visual appeal is there (I mean, when is it ever not with van Hove and Versweyveld’s work), but after the cast take their bows after 3 hours and 45 minutes, there isn’t much for the audience to process – a lot of which is done live as we absorb the thrilling visual stimuli in front of us, in the form of the thumping music and regular bright projections.
Yet those, rather fittingly, will be gone in a flash. What lingers in the minds of audience members are the more visceral emotions we engaged with during and after the production. But with all the smoke, metal and mudslinging, I’m somehow left wanting a bath, as if experiencing second-hand dirtiness. A sense we’re all afflicted with the same wretched desire for vengeance? Well, that would be a stretch as wide as the set itself.
Age of Rage is nice to look at – that’s guaranteed, given van Hove and Versweyveld’s style – but I have a feeling those willing to invest such a lengthy amount of time in a theatre in exchange for something more intrinsic will be left underserved.
Age of Rage is now playing at the Barbican Theatre until 8 May. All performances are in Dutch with English subtitles.
Production Images: Jan Versweyveld.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Age of Rage’ for free in exchange for a review of the press performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.