Barbican Theatre, London (****)
The big, interesting question is why would a Dutch company want to interest itself in this most English of histories?
The answer is probably self-evident as the current 400th Shakespeare anniversary celebrations and last year’s international Globe festival repeatedly confirm. Shakespeare and his plays are for all seasons and have universal appeal. Wherever power and politics are engaged, there, somewhere in the midst Shakespeare will have gone before.
At a time, especially now, of European turbulence and uncertainty, Shakespeare’s history plays are more than ever applicable. And as director Ivo van Hove, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s charismatic artistic director who seven years ago brought the equally impressive seven-hour Shakespeare adapted Roman Tragedies to the Barbican explains, `I am constantly thinking about the way in which leaders approach power and decision-making in a crisis.’
But this time, it is a very English story, as van Hove makes plain right from the start in this four and a half hour epic, with portraits showing the direct monarchical line moving back in time from present day baby George, through William, Elizabeth II, George VI to Henry IV and Henry V. In the background on small television sets, old black & white footage of 1940s British war films and celebrity garden parties are playing. If you look carefully you can spot a young Richard Attenborough and matinee idol, Michel Wilding!
Kings of War though will be the story of three of them, of that blood-letting time of civil war between Lancaster and York, of Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV briefly and Richard III – stories told as if in real time with all the trappings of modern video-cam technology. It will be a story of monstrous medicalised murders, by injection, intense domestic emotion and at times unbearable tension.
Graphic to the point of discomfort, van Hove will spare us nothing in bringing home the reality of homicide and consequences of power as administered even in the name of a `good’, righteous king (Henry V) with God on his side, a `weak’, God-fearing one (Henry VI) and one whose ambition determines that nothing will or shall stand in his way.
Some of us may know these stories well having seen the RSC Histories and others over the years in various guises. Inevitably van Hove has cut and edited Shakespeare text, adding new lines for clarification (shades of John Barton and his original Wars of the Roses).
What is fascinating is seeing the outsider’s eye finding fresh emphases and whilst there is a due sense of reverence, indeed solemnity underscored by composer Eric Sleichim’s pervasive throbbing sound score and blasts of brass from a saxophone ensemble, there is also a sense of liberation from having to play authentic or English Shakespeare.
So there is less of the York-Lancaster dispute, more of the women and their part in proceedings marvellously filled out by a style of performing from the actresses concerned, full-bloodied and rich with personality.
Ramsey Nasr’s Henry V follows the conventional line of a man of conscience, alive to the innocent lives to be lost by his decisions yet somehow you wouldn’t quite trust this man and intriguingly, van Hove has him raising his voice to an almost Hitlerian rhetorical pitch as he exhorts his men `once more unto the breach.’
Eelco Smits’ Henry VI, again dressed as all the kings, in today’s code of suit and tie, plays him as a young man genuinely bewildered by the aggression of those around him, his longing to be the simple man, a shepherd, visualised in one of the many video-cam sequences surrounded by bleating sheep being herded along a white corridor, like lambs to the slaughter…
The Duke of York, briefly Edward IV, is seen as a quasi bullet-headed Godfather figure before quickly disintegrating on being told by his brother Richard, of the death of Clarence.
That scene stands out as one of the most tense and disturbing. A cherry tart sits prominently in the middle of the sitting room table as Edward attempts to encourage his brothers and warring relatives to be reconciled. Yet you just know, from everything that has gone before, that something terrible is about to break loose.
They sit and eat their slice of tart in silence. Then Elizabeth’s wife mentions Clarence; Richard pukes and is appalled no one knew the `the good Clarence is dead.’ All hell breaks loose.
A masterful moment in one of many, two others stand out. Hans Kesting’s Richard, without a physical hump but a huge emotional chip on his shoulder and a vivid birth-mark on his face, gallops round the stage as the world closes in on him. Facing battle at Agincourt, he sits in a chair in front of a mirror – a motif van Hove introduced from the beginning with Richard showing him addressing his one true confidante, himself, in a mirror – and the ghosts of those he murdered morph out from the mirror beside him.
In a strangely haunting moment, too, Richard practises his kingship with an armchair piled on a table in front of the self same mirror and in that moment you suddenly glimpse some very familiar contemporary faces whose ambition is as naked.
Less reductive than some recent British modern dress Shakespeares, van Hove’s production will leave you free to make your own parallels. Its lessons are no less stark, its acting at all levels astonishing. A tough four and a half hours.
Kings of War is at the Barbican Theatre to May 1, 2016
Review first published for Reviewgate, April 2016