“I did not yet know the value of the throne”
It’s well over six years now since Toneelgroep Amsterdam blew open my tiny little mind with their Roman Tragedies. Back at a time when this blog was in its infancy, back when I ‘only’ saw something like 10 shows a month, back when making the decision to see a six-hour-long Shakespearean epic in Dutch was something surprising. Nowadays of course it is second nature, I regularly visit Amsterdam to see this extraordinary company work and I’ve been to New York to see director Ivo van Hove cast his magic on Broadway too in The Crucible. But it is nice to only have to go to the Barbican to see them too and at just the four and a half hours, Kings of War is practically an amuse-bouche!
My spoiler-free review from Amsterdam is here but so much more resonated with me second time around, so we’re going deeper here folks. As with the significantly worthier The Wars of the Roses (more than twice as long in toto, less than half as good), the impetus for the storytelling comes from merging Shakespeare’s first history cycle, only van Hove goes one further and includes Henry V (and arguably a smidgen of Henry IV Part 2 too). So the overarching narrative becomes one of power – the violence of seizing it, the realities of maintaining it, the struggle to keep it – as played out over and over again in this vicious cycle of dynastic tussles.
And this it shows by honing in the focus entirely on the kings, and those that would be kings, and the world they live in. So Jan Verweysweld’s set encloses them in a palatial estate, a vast room that gradually evolves from war room to decadent largesse to haunting bunker, keeping the rulers in but equally important, keeping the outside world out. For Bart Van den Eynde and Peter Van Kraaij’s free adaptation excises as well as distils, this controlled perspective meaning its not necessarily Shakespeare as we – as in British audiences – might know it and for the better it is too. It’s a fantastically pacy evening and for all its familiarity, full of surprises.
The warren of clinically white corridors behind the main chamber allows for live and prerecorded video (Tal Yarden) to be seamlessly intercut, often revealing the consequences of the dirty business of ruling. Eric Sleichim’s music mixes the arresting brass ensemble BL!NDMAN, Steve Dugardin’s stunning countertenor solos and a fine besuited DJ to highly atmospheric effect. And an attention to even the smallest of details that are a constant delight to behold, alongside the main action – the array of films playing in Henry V’s war office, the way that Eelco Smit’s Henry VI folds his pyjamas under the pillow, Richard III keeping his deadly syringes in the same cabinet as the crown.
It helps to that Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s long-established company of actors remain in such fine form. Ramsey Nasr’s Henry V shows us pragmatic leadership and a brilliantly shouty flirting style; Smits is perfect as an ineffectually nerdish Henry VI, sobbing at the pressure of monarchy from the moment he’s crowned; and Hans Kesting astonishingly memorable as Mark Antony once again astounds as a chillingly psychopathic Richard III. Whether dodging (brilliantly realised) ghosts, charging around the stage terrifyingly playing make-believe, or soliloquising into a full-length mirror, his mesmerising malevolence holds us rapt for the entirety of the second act.
There’s brilliant work too from Chris Nietvelt as a deeply human Montjoy, a fervent Eleanor of Gloucester and a startling Elizabeth of York who shares a memorably intense scene with Kesting whilst trying to defend her daughter; from Bart Sleger’s coldly calculating York, his elegant poise shattered by a brutal incident that brings the curtain down on Act 1 with hairs on end; from an aged-up Marieke Heebink as an embittered but still empathetic Duchess of York, Hélène Devos’ scarcely-won-over Princess Katherine, Aus Greidanus Jr’s dessert-munching Buckingham; from everyone really.
Kings of War is thus a boldly conceived project, one whose thematic concerns intelligently point to the timelessness of Shakespeare and the perils of leadership whether medieval or modern. They also remind us of the creative genius of van Hove, in whose world a cheesecake has the same significance as a crown and you never even doubt it for a second.