Emperors can be softies too: Wim Opbrouck & Peter Verhelst opt for a different ‘Nero’

Mommy this. Mommy that. Straight from the beginning you wonder: is this a Roman emperor? If this guy were really Nero he’d never be that sweet and use that word. But he does. With affection. And straight away you know that you’re going to see a different emperor; a different Nero. Don’t expect grand gestures and an overtly self-assured leader. Flemish actor Wim Opbrouck and author/playwright Peter Verhelst opt for a soft-spoken and hesitant Nero, in this new theatre production by NTGent (performance in Dutch).

Nero. The emperor whose rule is associated with tyranny and extravagance. The emperor who burned Christians in his garden at night as a source of light. Who sang while the city of Rome was burning down (the Great Fire). True or false? Historians are still debating on that. But anyway: that’s the Nero as we prefer to know him. The Nero with his grotesque longing for beauty who forgot to rule his empire.

On stage at NTGent we see a totally different one. He might have an impressive body, but this emperor keeps his voice down. He whispers. To himself, to the audience and to that nursemaid keeping him company throughout the performance. He tells us about the death of his father and the moment he became emperor, about his dreams and aspirations. About his mentor Seneca. And at a certain point he unveils his city: the miniature houses and buildings that were until then covered by a huge curtain. He starts walking, as a giant Gulliver, through the streets of his Rome.

It’s all well-done and polite. But to me this Nero was lacking tension and development. As I mentioned: right from the start Nero is pictured as a sensitive one. And he stays this sensitive character right until the end (for me that end scene with sixties Dutch child star Heintje singing Mama was really taking it one step too far). Add to this a (gifted) actor that keeps his acting in the same register for most of the play, and a text that doesn’t take any unexpected turns and you end up with a nice theatre performance that fails to become really thrilling or extraordinary. (But it has to be said: it’s beautiful to see both actors silently toppling all the buildings over, in their version of that Great Fire.)

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