Theater Reviews

Kings of War

Kristine Johanson (University of Amsterdam)

Kings of War: A Review

Directed by Ivo van Hove with Toneelgroep Amsterdam

February 12, 2016, Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam

Playing April 22 – May 1st at the Barbican, London

(In Dutch)

Leiderschap en macht. Leadership and power: these are the two central concerns of Ivo van Hove’s smart, sleek Kings of War, and they manifest in both surprising and anticipated ways during the play. Kings of War is van Hove’s four-and-a-half hour adaptation of Henry V, 2 & 3 Henry VI, and Richard III (played in that order). Such an adaptation is ambitious, and the production exceeds that ambition.

Alwin Pulinckx, Aus Greidanus jr., Ramsey Nasr, Konstantin Koev, Daniel Ruibal Ortigueira, Daniel Quiles Cascant, Charlotte van Passen. photo: © jan versweyveld

Alwin Pulinckx, Aus Greidanus jr., Ramsey Nasr, Konstantin Koev, Daniel Ruibal Ortigueira, Daniel Quiles Cascant, Charlotte van Passen. photo: © jan versweyveld

Ramsey Nasr, Hélène Devos photo: © jan versweyveld

Ramsey Nasr as Henry V, Hélène Devos as Katherina
photo: © jan versweyveld

Van Hove is known for his use of film in the theatre, and this production is certainly no exception, as the use of visible and invisible cameras repeatedly stresses his interest in how power is mediated. As an audience we see the mediation at work in the cameraman, an unnamed character onstage; the spectators are reminded that even backstage there is always an audience. This is particularly evident in Henry VI, in which the play’s various conspiracies occur not in the public space of the stage but in private corridors, thus suggesting how little power Henry VI (Eelco Smits) actually has. The staging establishes how power works in the drama: the levers of power are pulled offstage, out of the spotlight, away from us. Yet while film here is often deployed to effective use, I consistently felt that the director didn’t trust his audience, preferring to micro-manage what we see and how we interpret. For example, having had the screen dominate speeches, provide historical facts, and take us into the English camp in Henry V, it was freeing when Henry V (Ramsey Nasr) tried wooing Katherina of France (Hélène Devos) over a candlelit dinner and the cameras were absent. The heavy camera work meant that when actors did turn to speak to the audience –  as Richard III does, placing us in the role as “the people” – a certain theatrical energy was created. With film, van Hove metamorphosed his audience into the roles he erases here – those of the commoners; in that erasure, the plays become even more focused upon leadership and power.

From the very beginning of this production, van Hove wants us to think about the relationship between contemporary politics and the theatre. Above a set inspired by Churchill’s War Rooms, a large, approximately 9’ x 9’ screen hangs above center stage, and this screen will dominate and mediate the action for the audience. It is first used to suggest that the play begins now, in 2016, and travels back in time, as it shows images and dates of future, present, and past monarchs, beginning with a photo of the baby George of Wales (dates of rule: (????-????)) then flashing to William, to Charles, and backward through the line of British monarchy until we reach Henry V, where the play begins. Van Hove, in explicitly thinking about the future and in using these ‘????’, suggests the unknowability of the political future, even though who will wield political power seems clearly determined. That determination is all the more telescoped by the absence of ‘commoners’ in this play; with the exception of Henry V’s nightwalk amongst his troops, Van Hove and his dramaturg

Hélène Devos as Lady Anne, Hans Kesting as Richard of Gloucester photo :© jan versweyveld

Hélène Devos as Lady Anne, Hans Kesting as Richard III
photo: © jan versweyveld

Peter van Kraaij cut all the scenes involving ‘the people’.  And in the Kings of War‘s climax, Richard III’s juvenile theatrics are replaced by his stage-management of his own coronation and the total exposure of politics as performance. Richard strips down to his underwear – enabling us to see his large “Dad” tattoo on his arm – before dressing himself; he calls the play’s musicians back on stage; he cues the music of Henry V’s coronation; he pulls out the red carpet himself; he calls everyone on stage, all the while sporadically exclaiming, “King Richard!” “King Richard!” After his final exit, order and harmony are restored through Richmond’s (Ramsey Nasr again) coronation, this time on a red carpet facing the audience. This reorientation of the ritual turns political order to us, as if daring – or inviting? – us to reject it.

Yet for all the ways that it feels far from Shakespeare – in language, media, and production – the play in fact stays closest to its origins in pursuing and insisting upon the theatricality of politics and of political power.

A full-length version of this review will appear in The Shakespeare Newsletter Spring 2016 (65.2).

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