sat 13/07/2024

Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Barbican

Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Barbican

Ivo van Hove's lucid, searing distillation of five Shakespeare history plays

Dazzling: Hans Kesting as Richard IIIAll images by Jan Versweyveld

Banished from the Barbican are the hollow kings of the mediocre RSC Henrys IV and V. In their place comes a whole new procession of living, breathing monarchs in a vision that's light years away from bad heritage Shakespeare.

Doyen of Dutch-Belgian - and world - theatre Ivo van Hove has filleted Henry V, the three Henry VI plays and Richard III to create his own trilogy of Greek-tragedy leanness and power, focusing above all on the totally different characters of three men making crucial decisions in times of civil, internecine and international war. Shakespeare, whose language remains intact despite being translated back in the supertitles to plainer English, would have loved it.

The very elements which first had me worried that the direct communication of the 14-strong (and I mean strong) cast might be swamped - video work, constant soundscape - ended up being equal strengths to the delivery of the text; the contemporary setting always informs and makes vivid the power-struggles. Never, in my experience, has a Shakespeare cycle been more consistently or imaginatively unified. Red-carpet ceremonies are five times enacted (remember there's an Edward VI to reclaim York's hegemony). Kings die or are murdered on white beds in clinical corridors leading to the main stage; patterns of betrayal and usurpation are pointedly repeated. The initial windback from the youngest current heir to the throne, incidentally, isn't entirely new: Richard Jones did much the same at the start of his Royal Opera Gloriana. But in every other respect van Hove is Jones's equal for visionary rigour.Ramsey Nasr as Henry V in Kings of WarWe end where we began with a cold and military but ostensibly honourable king - honourable, that is, if his cause be good, and that's questioned here. Ramsey Nasr plays both Henry V (pictured above) and Richmond - crowned Henry VII at the end of this four and a half hours - with an air of focused detachment that, in Hal-grown-sober, occasionally gives way to explosive rage. After a brief encounter with Henry IV on his deathbed, van Hove's text-shearing keeps Harry isolated in his war room. As the onstage scene remains for this particular play in Jan Versweyveld's smoothly adaptable designs, veering to clean bourgeois luxury for Edward IV's family living space and then cleared for Richard III's inner and outer emptiness.

The conflicts in France are kept stylistically at a distance, though we see the sleeping soldiers in the corridors as that "little touch of Henry in the night" finds him tentative and in anguish as he tries to reach out for the first time to another human being. The second time is the courtship of Katherine of France: he stumbles in his wooing over dinner for two, she (Hélène Devos) stays cool, bemused, almost charmed by the end but walking quickly away from a compulsory kiss.

Then the heartstopping moments come thick and fast: we next see Katherine carrying his young child and kissing his corpse, this time with real feeling; love has grown along with the security of the nation, only to be dashed by Henry VI's reign. Everything bursts into ensemble colour, as it were, with a court of intriguers. The three early history plays are brilliantly condensed - no Joan of Arc, no Jack Cade - into not only the power struggles around the king but also an intense study of his nervous, bookish, conflict-hating character, brilliantly played by Eelco Smits.

When did we care as much for this Henry as his predecessor? A vintage Shakespearean role, complete with a sense of being "half in love with easeful death" and acquiescent to his murder at Richard of Gloucester's hand (upsetting), emerges perhaps for the first time. The speech where he imagines himself a peaceful shepherd, filmed in a corridor full of sheep, is one of the most haunting in the production.

Eelco Smits and Janni Goslinga in Kings of WarNot that the rest of the cast aren't equally powerful. Janni Goslinga holds her poise as Margaret of Anjou, though briefly thrown off balance by Henry's bout of hysteria, an exhausting scene to watch (pictured above). The easy takeover of Edward VI shifts us from a book-covered table to a cool-living family space, complete with DJ to keep the ambience deceptively calm. But the magnificent trombonists of BLINDMAN - a master-stroke, this, unique to theatre in my experience - are never far away with their ceremonial or apocalyptic music, reinforced by countertenor Steve Dugardin in music arranged or composed by Eric Sleichim.

As Richard of York takes loping, morose centre stage the intensity levels are pointedly turned down for a while, punctuated only by the odd, minimally done murder. There's even deft comedy from Aus Greidanus's Buckingham - his only ally, as the same actor was playing honourable Gloucester to Henry VI, now turning in a brilliant sketch of opportunistic insouciance that turns sour. Since we see the lugubrious, birth-marked shambler and king-in-waiting as persuasive, low-key orator in his wooing of Lady Anne, we shouldn't be surprised when he breaks away from his melancholy addresses to a large mirror and the actor in him runs riot. Phone calls to Obama, Merkel and Putin - the only interjected text, apart from a sung Wilfred Owen poem in the first part - are only a prelude to a breathtaking, bonkers display of imagined kingship.

Hans Kesting here dazzles as much as any great Richard III I've seen - McKellen, Rylance, David Troughton - as he breaks into a mad circular run. It's mirrored in a frantic canter before he rushes to oblivion. Daringly, only the so-called battle scenes are played out to near-silence - the solitary slow ticking of an onstage metronome - as Richard is seen to have walled himself in on the now bare stage. Then it's back to the beginning with Richmond's final speech, so much more meaningful with the return of the sober warlord we saw in the first play.

Are there losses in the abbreviation? I did miss the epic meeting of the three cursing women in Richard III, especially as Chris Nietvelt keeps Elizabeth's reproaches very real - so refreshing to see non-actressy actors just being and enduring, a long way from our own tradition - and the contained intensity of Marieke Heebink's Duchess of York makes the mother-son scene all the more shocking. In the central strand, too, we get a different drama from the panorama of a disintegrating state Shakespeare shows us in his early attempts at history chronicle. But van Hove provides something else - an inexorable odyssey of agonising kingship which, on its own terms, never puts a foot wrong. You won't see more powerful Shakespeare this year.



Globe to Globe. Shakespeare's Globe stages 37 plays in 37 languages. The Arts Desk reviewed them all

Shakespeare Trilogy, Donmar at King's Cross. Phyllida Lloyd's ambitious Shakespeare all-female cycle comprises Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest

The Hollow Crown. The BBC's four-year project to tell the history of Shakespeare's English kings

The Wars of the Roses, Rose Theatre, Kingston. The landmark Hall/Barton Shakespeare trilogy receives a welcome revival from Trevor Nunn

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