Age of Rage – Barbican

Age of Rage, Barbican (by Jan Versweyveld)

The work of Ivo van Hove has proven divisive, the extent to which the director incorporates cinematic styles and influences into his work is a question of personal taste, so while some critics and audiences find work like All About Eve gimmicky, his parred-down version of The Human Voice was also criticised for not being gimmicky enough. So, it is interesting to look at the techniques he employs with the Dutch theatre company Internationaal Theater Amsterdam where the boundaries of all forms of artistic expression are easily and innovatively blurred. Building on long, immersive dramas including the acclaimed Roman Tragedies, Age of Rage, staged at the Barbican for only four nights, put a rock and roll spin on five stories in Greek tragedy emphasising the female impetus for violent revenge.

van Hove’s best work has focused on female protagonists and he is a director that acutely understands and can convey the interior female experience. And while there may be plenty of techniques employed in their presentation, these never detract from or overshadow the emotional substance of the lead and her context. The simplicity of the stripped-back staging choices for Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre sit alongside public-private divisions explored in All About Eve and the truly personal and deeply affecting experience in The Human Voice where unobserved deterioration was powerfully captured. Here in Age of Rage, van Hove’s work, co-adapted from Euripides and Aeschylus by Koen Tachelet, follows a notable drama trend in restoring and more fully excavating the role of women in Greek tragedy and returning a sense of agency, danger and determinism to their lives in a period usually associated with male bombast, war and all forms of directed masculine violence.

Like Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines shown during lockdown and more recently Kyo Choi’s Galapagos, the understanding and presentation of women in Greek mythology as victims and chattels is being revised, and while the murder, rape and bestial transformation by the Gods of women has informed subsequent gender structures, expectations and behaviours, the consequences of these actions when instigated by women were severe and often gruesome for the men who betrayed, captured or violated them. Age of Rage places those female stories centre stage, showing how female-driven revenge truly shaped the lives of men.

Telling the story of the Trojan War through the fortunes of Agamemnon’s family, this production explores notions of inherited trauma and inter-generational suffering by comparing concepts of individual and national sacrifice. When Agamemnon slaughters his daughter Iphigenia to guarantee favourable winds for the Greek fleet, it sets in motion a chain of events that play-out over the 3 hours and 45-minutes of this intensive drama. Structured around five related and consequential narratives – Iphigenia in Aulis, Trojan Women and Hecuba, Agamemnon, Elektra and Orestes – there are both dynastic and thematic links across the show that see some of the same events occur in different places and periods, while subsequent characters feel the impact of those who came before. The extent to which individuals are used or destroyed to pay a larger debt is significant and the ruination of the innocent looms large across the show. The death of Iphigenia to support someone else’s family, another man’s war and the whims of the Gods is crucial to understanding the female position in Age of Rage and the events their fury unleashed.

Mother and daughter relationships disrupted by male intervention occur again and again. When Clytemnestra discovers her husband’s betrayal, the conversation focuses on why Agamemnon chooses to sacrifice their daughter in order to rescue Helen, his friend Menelaus’s wife. From here, two particular narratives emerge that flow through the remainder of the production; the first is the role of Helen in causing all the events that follow and her active part not just in the deaths of thousands of men in the ten year conflict that ensues, but also as the cause of innocent deaths among civilians where several male parents choose to offer up their children to the Gods for her sake and the victory of Greece over Troy for which the women of the story violently resent her. The second is the role of the Gods in guarding and shaping events and the extent to which mortals have any control over their destiny. The arrival of Cassandra in one of the later segments with her prophesies that come to pass are part of a theme about ritual and practice in Greek life, examining how far the behaviour of everyday Greek citizens is fundamentally driven by religion and the space between the divine and human, especially in maternal decision-making.

Although men are in the foreground in determining the narrative direction of Greek tragedy – they start and conduct the wars and sacrifice the children – their emotional life in Age of Rage is, on the whole, relegated and associated with compliance with social dictates and religious expectations. Likewise, the consequences for them are largely political, having to balance this pleasing of the Gods with adhering to the mob and honouring bonds of fraternity with other men. We see them interacting in formal structures as comrades, war leaders and as politicians choosing to support or condemn behaviours based on the exacting strictures of “manly” behaviour. No amount of pleading prevents Agamemnon and others from sacrificing Iphigenia or Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena, thus the King remains immune to the wailing of women in order to do his duty as a man. This is most notable when Orestes is chastised by his grandfather Tyndareus despite avenging his father’s death because he is seen to have been coerced by his sister Elektra. In the male-structured world in which Age of Rage takes place, deference to any woman in the play is perceived as weakness from which only disgrace can follow.

That the women break through this structure to dominate and fundamentally shape the play is vital, emphasising the cost of these choices, of the human pain and consequences that mires the Atreus family across multiple generations. This tension runs through the show, pulling the female characters into the centre of the drama and creating psychologically complex creations who are in equal parts sympathetic and monstrous, instigating murderous crimes that emerge from their earlier maternal wounds and long-festering resentments. Men may create dangerous situations and embark on drawn-out, complicated wars, but it is the women who hold on to their hurts and wreak a terrible devastation that shakes the very foundations of morality, bringing social upset. From Clytemnestra’s brazen murder of her husband and subsequent flaunting of her lover to the aggrieved Hecuba physically attacking men with her loyal followers and Elektra castrating the body of her mother’s lover, Age of Rage is a ferocious statement of strategic female power and bodily vengence.

And in van Hove’s production, that power extends to an extraordinary visual experience that seamlessly combines theatre, a heavy metal soundtrack, dance and an operatic grandeur that is intense, bold and fresh in its vision while never drawing attention from the emotional volcanoes erupting between the characters. Jan Versweyveld creates a representative metal framework around the stage from which items including bloodied corpses can be dropped into the centre of the action, or the rigging used as additional platforms to alter the staging levels by creating opportunities for the Chorus cum dance troupe cum mob to observe the very public behaviours of their royal family. Into that almost Brechtian space, van Hove allows his creativity to flow freely, unconstrained by the more timid styles of British theatre, using a vast video backdrop – largely used for colour and pattern that cinematic relay – and minimal props to set the scene.

The first Act, lasting around two hours, opens with a deep heavy metal prologue played on electric guitar with bursts of flashing light also designed by Versweyveld. Throughout this first section, the tone is trashy glamour, a rock concert of sound and colour drawn together in An D’Huys’s grungy sequin costume design that gives the piece a seediness that prevents the audience from connecting to closely with characters whose moral and personal aptitudes will never be straightforward.

The tone is different again in Act Two as the story accelerates a generation to become a revenger’s revenge, blurring the boundaries of crimes and their appropriate punishment. Focusing largely on Elektra and Orestes, this becomes a pastoral piece far from the sheen of the court where a base of mud physically and metaphorically mires the characters. Fed by constantly dripping water from the rigging, it represents people now steeped in generations of corruption, staining their lives and anyone who comes into contact with them – not least the crisp cream suit of Tyndareus denoting a man very much out of place in this agrarian setting. Smell too becomes an important storytelling device, expanding the sense of immersion as the fragrant incense and turbine-driven smoke of Act One give way to the earthy freshness of wet mud filling the auditorium as these former aristocrats, almost God-like in their power, status and (notably) seemingly immune from consequences, are physically brought down to earth where their bodies join the thousands of others who die in this story either in combat or in sacrifice. Blood will beget blood Macbeth states, and so it proves.

As an exercise in artistic creativity, van Hove’s easily combines theatre and dance to tell the story and understand its wider impacts. Dance is often a separate moment in UK theatre, either it is its own distinct art form or a chance to pause for a specific number within a musical or opera. But in Age of Rage, all kinds of contemporary dance is integrated into the narrative either reflecting the ritualistic moments associated with worship, the “headbanger” style of heavy metal which exemplified the uncontrolled female fury of the title or used as a Chorus that combines movement and song to comment on and progress the story. There is less sense of separation between these different media and instead van Hove is telling the story simultaneously via dance, music and dramatic exchange, each woven into the other, raising and enhancing each style to provide an integrated and often booming experience. Although opera itself is not used, the grand narrative approach, big characters and stylised visual design is operatic in scale, enough to capture the inter-generational themes, life, death and the god-drivers while still retaining its intimate and psychologically-intensive character focus that examines the human and family cost of tragedy.

The performances are equally bold and deep, particularly Chris Nietvelt’s Clytemnestra flaunting her womanhood and sexuality in a low-cut sparkly halter neck dress and knee-high boots while being vigorous in her maternal grief for a daughter snatched away. Later, as she overtly parades her liaison with a younger man and years of embedded rage that boil over, Nietvelt creates a complex, contradictory and rounded Queen who evokes quite opposite reactions. Hans Kesting as Agamemnon and Gijs Scholten van Aschat as Menelaus are ultimately weak men able to use their indiscriminate power but both unable to hold on to their wives or recognise any free will that might exist to defy the high price asked by the Gods. Hélène Devos dominates the second half as a fiery Elektra resenting every moment of her poverty and using that resentment to fuel a sustained rage over more than a decade while quickly manipulating brother Orestes (Minne Koole) to act in the destruction of their mother. Outside the core family, Janni Goslinga as Hecuba powerfully conveys the cost of motherhood while Ilke Paddenburg as Iphigenia and all the sacrificed children makes an important point about the universality of that grief as the body count racks up with visual representation on screen as dancing figures lost forever.

There is real moral complexity in Age of Rage that not only passes between generations but also refuses to let one act expunge other faults – Clytemnestra may have just cause to murder her husband but her lascivious lifestyle means her own death is equally justifiable. With smoke, wind machines, video design, brash costumes, music and mud, van Hove’s show on paper seems like a lot, bold and gaudy, yet in practice it has emotional depth and an energy that is redolent of European theatre and of the lives Greek tragedy represents. Performed for only four days, Age of Rage was a thrilling retelling of familiar stories, a rare chance to see a van Hove grand vision come so vividly and memorably to life.

Age of Rage ran at the Barbican from 5-8 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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