You wait a lifetime for a play retelling the fall of Troy through the medium of interpretive dance and then two come along at once. Following hot on the heels of Punchdrunk’s immersive The Burnt City comes Age of Rage, the first post-pandemic work By Dutch auteur Ivo van Hove (The Network, Hedda Gabler).
From the outset it assaults your senses: on-stage drums and digital static blast your eardrums, incense smoke curls up your nose, and thick waves of dry ice sting your eyes.
It’s a mad, sprawling, not entirely successful experiment combining no fewer than six Euripides tragedies and one by Aeschylus, performed over what feels like an eternity (including the interval you don’t get much change out of four hours).
It begins, before the curtain has even raised, with a nice BBQ. Manning the grill is Tantalus, frying up the corpse of his son, which is a pretty good scene-setter for a production that revels in the cruel and unusual violence of Greek mythology. The roll-call of gratuitous acts includes castration (Elektra on Aegisthus), blinding (Hecuba on Polymestor), incest (Orestes and Elektra), and a skewering through the vagina (Orestes on Helen). Sarah Kane would have approved.
All of this is undeniably very metal, a concept van Hove translates literally, with exposition frequently delivered through the guttural screams of a death metal band.
The production is strongest during its frequent acrobatic and dance set pieces: murder victims floating into the air, blood being ostentatiously spilled, groups of men and women writhing animalistically across the stage.
The text itself, vastly abridged, is underwhelming by comparison. Having undergone at least two translations (the majority of the play is performed in Dutch with English surtitles), it feels perfunctory, like A-Level Cliff Notes, lacking any real poetry. The speech-heavy scenes also bring the action to a halt, creating jarringly static oases in the sea of movement.
Thematically there’s an emphasis on cycles of violence: how victims become perpetrators and how abuse ripples through generations. Seeing all of these plays merged together really drills home how each branch of this messed up family tree poisons the next. There’s also a thread that runs through the entire series of plays about how fear of the democratic masses can cause those in power to act in unethical ways, reflecting the rise of populism across the globe today.
It’s well acted throughout but the stand-out performance is Chris Nietvelt as both Clytemnestra and Helen. Clad in striking sequin dresses, she contorts herself into impossible shapes, putting on a disconcertingly sinewy display, her speech often trailing off into pained grunting as her characters endure their terrible fates.
I’m not sure if the play runs out of steam after the interval or the audience does. The second half is every bit as energetic as the first – there’s even a giant mud pit for the characters to splash about in – but it begins to feel like a slog. There’s a reason Euripides took his sweet time with this story.
Age of Rage is not van Hove at his best. But it is at least a hot mess, shooting for the stars and falling spectacularly into the mud.