In Electra, one of the finest tragedies handed down to us by the ancient Greeks, there is at least one piece of writing that made history. It is the record of a horse race. You don't see anything, but the language puts your imagination to work. 25 centuries later, they tried to turn the images described into real images for the film Ben Hur (different story, but the primal scene comes from Sophocles). It is a legendary sequence. It took millions of dollars, 70-millimetre projections, hundreds of extras a few dead horses to match the effect of a single monologue.
That is what art is capable of. For it takes place in our heads, triggered by well-chosen words.
That horse race has been killed off in both word and image in the production Age of Rage, with which Internationaal Theater Amsterdam is playing itself out of the lockdown. The scrapping of that race is symptomatic of everything that is wrong with this nearly four-hour-long misunderstanding of what the Greeks left us 2,500 years ago, and in fact of what could be called good contemporary theatre. I witnessed it last Sunday from row 1, cloaked in a cape against the mud and fake blood thrown into the auditorium in the second half of the project.
Age of Rage is a logical sequel to director Ivo van Hove's first internationally successful productions based on another old master: Shakespeare. In Kings of War and Roman Tragedies, he brilliantly succeeded in bringing the essences of the work of the English bard, who has been dead for four hundred years, to today's world. So it was natural to expect Van Hove to take up the classical Greeks as well. Even more than in Shakespeare's work, those few tragedies that have been handed down to us are fragments of an extremely fascinating mythology, where bloodlines, divine pettiness and human heroism lead to centuries of strife and conflict. They also gave us insights into the human psyche that are still relevant today.
The plays, written at the time for festivals where they were performed in front of sometimes 20,000 spectators, were a marvel of imagination and language. At school, I learned that, due to a lack of technology, they had to tell all sorts of things that we can just show with modern means. So being able to show that would be a sign of progress. In Age of Rage, it turns out to be the opposite. Indeed, if the picture is imperfect and lacks substance, you will be bored to death after a few minutes, if not dying before because of vicarious shame.
ITA also leaves exactly the wrong things to the imagination in this performance. For instance, we have to imagine that the enormously nice Maarten Heijmans leads a second life as growler in a Death Metal band. Most of all, the band sounds a bit loud, but far too polished. The growling is more like the Muppet show than good for any effect. We also have to imagine really really good actors like Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Hans Kesting and Chris Nietvelt feeling something while screaming their lungs out with emotion.
The worst we should imagine is that ITA's stage actors, young and novice and old and mature, can convincingly dance a choreography by the big name Wim Vandekeybus. This is because, especially up close, it does not look like that: it does not exude conviction, it is heavily technically imperfect and, above all, takes a lot of time, filled with drumming that has now become ITA cliché.
That the 'choruses', which were actually the main act in Greek tragedies, are often a breaking point for modern directors, on which 'something' must be found, is demonstrated here yet again. Flying in a choreographer of repute is no solution. I do know a few, but I'll tell you about those another time.
After the interval, the play plays in blood, rain and mud, in which there is much clawing of despair. That mud comes because the revenge goddesses, who haunt the classic mother killer Orestes at the finale, live underground. His sister, princess Elektra, spends her days as a wee farmer, so the link to screeching pigs is quickly made behind the director's table.
What exactly is the message of this performance that ignores any real core of Greek tragedy remains unclear. That Greek mythology was set in a soggy, bloody primeval age where girls ate dicks and sucked out eyes, it always rained when the wind didn't blow, and people proceeded to commit mass murder among loved ones with about a single argument? The Blood Wedding in Game of Thrones was a marvel of delicate subtlety compared to the senseless violence committed by ITA against the cradle of our culture.
That we have not progressed much since then, in terms of humanity and civilisation? That message is stuck in the mud.
Maybe New York audiences will get something out of it.