Adelaide Festival: A Quick Chat with Eelco Smits cast member of Roman Tragedies

Eelco Smits Photo: Jan Versweyveld
Eelco Smits
Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Since its inception in 2007 Roman Tragedies, created by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, has received international acclaim and widespread popularity, at least for those adventurous enough to brave a six-hour Shakespeare adaptation performed entirely in Dutch.

“Usually when we play abroad, people say, ‘A six hour show? And six hours in Dutch? How am I ever going to watch it?’” Eelco Smits told Aussie Theatre’s Paige Mulholland.

However the show clearly manages to transcend language barriers and delight audiences through the use of multimedia, subtitles, music and innovative staging and has gained praise from prestigious critics, including those from The New York Post, The Guardian and The Independent.

The large-scale production adapts Shakespeare’s classics, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, moving them into the modern setting of a political press conference. Audience members are welcome to wander freely onto the stage, chat, check their emails during the show or even exit to the foyer and watch the televised, subtitled, news-style live stream of the production.

“It’s done to give you a feeling of watching CNN. Nowadays there’s a stream of political images going on all the time, twenty-four hours a day, and we wanted to capture that in the show as well”, explains Smits.

Smits feels that the multimedia elements, as well as the timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes, are what give the show its unique appeal.

“What’s so brilliant about Shakespeare is that what he said about how political mechanisms work, it’s still happening. The way politicians are being pushed over, or being manipulated, or how they seize power, or how political actions are affected by their situations at home; he [Shakespeare] writes about all that and it’s very much still going on, I think. And that’s what makes it special”, adds Smits.

Eelco Smits Photo:  Jan Versweyveld
Eelco Smits
Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Although the six-hour, interval-free production is an enthralling, exciting ride for the audience, Smits admits that the long-haul performances can be draining for the cast, who schedule their meals, activities and down-time in between their scenes.

“The funny thing is all the actors have found their way of dealing with it. I know exactly when my breaks are”, says Smits, who has performed in the show since its premiere in 2007.

In addition to being an enormous undertaking for the cast, it is also a challenge for the crew, albeit a rewarding one. They have to deal with the demands made by a combination of huge sets, cutting-edge technological requirements, intricate staging and musical arrangements.

When Toneelgroep Amsterdam originally created the production, it was not expected to tour widely because of the enormity of the production, both practically and physically.

“When we made this in 2007 we didn’t think it would travel so much because it’s so big”, says Smits. “When we played in Avignon we couldn’t fit in any of the regular theatres so we had to move to a gymnastic hall outside the city.”

Despite these practical setbacks, the show has toured fairly consistently for the past seven years, visiting dozens of locations throughout Europe and the Americas.

Australia is, by far, the furthest the show has travelled to date and the cast and crew are delighted by the opportunity to perform exclusively as a part of the Adelaide Festival.

“It’s a great show to perform in and we’re really excited to bring it to Australia,” says Smits.

Roman Tragedies is in Adelaide from 28 February to 2 March at the Adelaide Festival Centre.

Paige Mulholland

Paige Mulholland is an Adelaide based writer, reviewer and perpetual volunteer for all things artsy in Adelaide. She has a double degree in International Relations and Journalism, and and writes for Adelaide Theatre Guide and ArtsHub as well as In her spare time, she takes classes in dance, voice and theatre, and sometimes has deep philosophical discussions with her cats.

Paige Mulholland

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