May 1, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

Kings of War (Toneelgroep Amsterdam) @ The Barbican Theatre

In 2009 I was lucky enough to see Toneelgroep Amsterdam perform Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies at the Barbican. That mammoth reworking of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra remains one of my lifetime theatrical highlights – not just for its length and ambition, but for its cohesive use of space, its innovative flexibility around the actor-audience arrangement, and its thorough integration of interactive digital media and video within a live performance. Seven years later, Kings of War – a similarly ambitious integration of Henry V, the Henry VI plays and Richard III – suffered rather by comparison as a much more conservative production. Gone were the interactive digital elements, the possibility for audience members to re-seat themselves during the production, and the short breaks that allowed for a continuous seven-hour performance. While still long (four and a half hours, with one interval), the structural conservatism was matched by a safe, pro-monarchical politics and by a much less sophisticated use of space. While Kings of War was still an outstanding achievement, this was contained within a much more limited artistic and interpretive ambition.

I begin with the negative in order to be honest about my own unrealistically heightened expectations, but Kings of War was an intelligent, powerful and often insightful adaptation of the histories. As with Roman Tragedies, the fullest treatment was reserved for the last section, with Richard III taking up almost the entire second half. The Henry VI plays were, predictably, decimated – of Part One, only the immediate reaction to Henry V’s death and a section of Suffolk wooing Margaret were retained; of Part Two, the second half (including the Cade rebellion) was entirely cut, the play skipping straight from York leaving for Ireland to the confrontation that opens Part 3; and Part 3 itself skipped straight from the opening arrangement that Henry would bequeath his crown to the Yorks to the coronation of Edward. The most important conflation here was of father and son by  turning Richard of York into Edward IV; in this version, York’s rebellion led to him actually gaining the crown, simplifying the plot enormously and allowing van Hove to skip over the cycles of revenge that form most of Part 3. Henry V received much fuller treatment at the play’s start, with the production’s entire jettisoning of battle scenes serving to speed up the opening section.

The cutting was for the most part extremely well done, although the adaptors somehow managed to leave in one confused reference to Somerset – who was entirely cut and whose role was merged into Humphrey’s – and some other confusing references to Richard III’s ‘father’, who didn’t exist in this play when the Duke of York was his brother. The cutting did, however, contribute to what came across (to me, at least) as political conservatism. With the exception of Michael Williams in Henry V and two tracking sequences in corridors contrasting the exhausted English army and the partying French revellers, all non-noble/royal characters were cut from the play – not only were the rioters of 2 Henry VI cut, but messengers, common soldiers, the crowds addressed by Buckingham and Richard, even the murderers and lackeys of Richard III. The production began, wittily, with a projected photograph of Baby Prince George, and then worked backwards through Princes William and Charles, Elizabeth II and so on until Henry V, oddly including Oliver and Richard Cromwell in the same lineage of rulers. The production ended with the company singing Latin in celebration of the resumption of a rightful monarch in Henry VII, and standing behind him in a deferential vertical line. In the world of this production there was no alternative to monarchy, or even challenges to monarchy – just critique of which monarchs were worse than others.

While there may not have been much interrogation of ideology, however, there was plenty of interest in the production’s treatment of individuals responding to war, uprising and insecurity. The production took place entirely in a staging area, which shifted from the situation room of Henry V to a boardroom in Henry VI and a family drawing room for the first half of Richard III. War, when it was evoked, appeared on strategic maps of Europe and via video communication. What violence there was took place in a white corridor that ran behind the upstage wall and was viewed on a massive video screen that dominated the stage. van Hove continued the trend seen in other recent productions for extensive integration of live video, following characters into these backstage areas where the more intimate focus of the video camera worked particularly well for conspiracy (especially as York, Suffolk, Margaret and Winchester plotted Humphrey’s death). At time (and usually seamlessly)  van Hove interwove pre-recorded footage, most amusingly in a sequence where Henry VI turned the corner of the corridor to find it rammed full of real sheep, through which he pushed while musing on the easier life of a shepherd.

As ever with productions that integrate live video, the pace rather suffered at times from this. The video was well shot, but it made for long stretches of time with no on-stage action, and the St. Crispin’s Day speech became a radio play, performed entirely in voice over with no actors on stage while the video screen showed an aerial map of France. The necessity of miking up all the actors so that they could perform cinematically as well as theatrically made the production at times difficult to follow from the cheaper seats. The majority of the cast looked very similar, were dressed very similarly and gave very similar vocal performances, and as the miked-up sound flattened any sense of where words were coming from, I found myself having to work extremely hard to work out who was speaking at any given moment. On the plus side, rarely have I seen live video incorporated so well into an overall design. The most obvious coup was the presentation of the ghosts as shadows superimposed onto Richard’s on-screen presence, and his attempts to touch or embrace them allowed for a beautifully doubled performance. And the lingering presence of dead bodies on the screen while the effects of their death were discussed on stage (especially Humphrey and Henry VI) ensured that the significance of the dead was never lost.

Ramsey Nasr was a fascinatingly ambivalent Henry V. He was first seen backstage, taking the advice of his dying father to pursue wars in France, and in the preparations for war cut a quiet figure, mostly sat at desks working through books and letters, or choosing one of his colour-coded phones from which to ring the French ambassador. He was deliberately difficult to get a read on. One of the fullest scenes was his arraignment of Grey, where his sense of betrayal emerged initially in a quiet resentment and then in full-blown rage. On reaching the battlefields, he became a protean master of PR. First he delivered a straight-to-camera, measured ‘Once more unto the breach’ to encourage his troops; then an angry, spittle-inflected rant of blood and destruction while marching left and right across the downstage area, leaning into the camera to threaten the people of Harfleur with rape and slaughter while the camera caught the Barbican audience behind him as the massed army. The camera then followed him offstage to see him reveal his real terror about the need to lift the siege, moments before the people of Harfleur surrendered. Henry was, in short, whatever the situation required him to be, but in himself seemed insecure. The production’s highlight was his wooing of Hélène Devos’s Katharina. His lackeys set up a formal dining table for them, and Devos sat, arms folded, waiting to be impressed. Henry proceeded to fumble his way through a conversation while knocking over glasses and plates, falling through the back of his chair, barking out laughs at his own jokes and finally building into an impassioned, relentless monologue interrupted only by the return of the nobles. His utter ineptitude at wooing made little difference, given the immediate surrender of the French King, but aimed to remind the audience that this ‘hero’ was no less flawed than anyone as a human.

Eelco Smits was deeply nervous as Henry VI. Each King was in turn crowned with a full red carpet and display of crown and robes, shot by camera from a high angle, and Henry VI looked much more terrified of the responsibility than his father. He clung onto his nobles in turn, desperate for their support, and when having to make a major decision about Humphrey’s role he was still in bed and in his pyjamas, besieged and humbled by nobles speaking over him. His most powerful moment came following the announcement of Humphrey’s death, as first he fell into a fit, then stumbled about the stage, falling to his knees and trying to pray while Janni Goslinga’s strong-willed Margareta followed him about the stage, grabbing and shaking him, trying to shame him into attending to her.

The shift to a greater ensemble dynamic in this part of the production was welcome, and van Hove made excellent use of the cameras to position the play’s victims in relation to their persecutors. Humphrey’s wife Leonora (Chris Nietvelt) was made prominent in a reactionary role, her almost-impassive face plastered across the video screen while she became a pawn in the politics of the bickering councillors. Later, as Humphrey’s position became apparent, Aus Greidanus Jr stumbled about the stage while the camera picked out the various conspirators standing around the edges, waiting for Humphrey to fall. This was mirrored later as Henry walked back into his council chamber to find the entire ensemble waiting for him, Hugh Koolschijn’s Warwick standing at the top of the table while Bart Slegers’s York/Edward smoked a cigarette and waited for him, patient and firm. York refused to move while Henry knelt on the enormous council table, leafing desperately through history books to try to find a precedent that would allow him to remain king.

The aesthetic changed significantly in the play’s second half. Throughout the first half, a gallery of trombonists punctuated the action with ritual music. In the second, to accompany the more domestic space of Edward’s royal family, a DJ provided ambient score. Richard’s ascension to power was structured, brilliantly, around a single cake that sat centrally on a large coffee table surrounded by sofas and armchairs, the cake itself captured in a close camera shot and thrown up on the video screen, replacing the image of a crown that had dominated the first half. The cake was finally cut and divided up during the reconciliation scene, and after apologising to one another Richard, Elizabeth, Rivers, Buckingham and Edward indulged in the most tense and uncomfortable communal cake eating that I imagine has ever been seen onstage, disrupted only when Richard began choking in response to Elizabeth’s mention of Clarence.

Hans Kesting was superb as Richard. A very tall man, he walked awkwardly but with more of a stoop than a hunch; he had a knee brace under his trousers, but his only clear mark of deformity was a large birthmark on his left cheek. His awkwardness rendered him an initially quiet figure, but one with an enormous sense of fun. Left alone after Buckingham went to win the crowds to his side, Richard started playing at being King – he set up a chair in front of a mirror, played with the crown, and picked up the colour-coded telephones to make imagined prank calls to Obama, Merkel and Putin. He put on the crown and draped a carpet around his shoulders, mimicked Olivier’s hunchback and raced around the stage cackling, only to quickly drop the charade when Buckingham returned. Later, when it came to his coronation, the stage was stripped absolutely bare of its furniture, and Richard himself rolled out the red carpet. This was one of the moments where the production worked best as sequence, the ritual established by Henry V, Henry VI and Edward IV turned into a travesty as Richard tried to mimic it.

Where Henry V’s problem had been his protean public performances and Henry VI’s had been his disappearance into a crowd of followers, Richard’s issues emerged in his narcissistic isolation. For the second half, an enormous mirror was mounted on one side of the stage, which Richard could barely tear himself away from. The cameras captured him talking constantly to his reflection, and his introspection and self-delusion drove what became an increasingly disabling paranoia. Only the play’s women seemed to be able to break into his headspace. The scene with Devos’s Lady Anne was brisk and angry, her scorn for him never entirely dropping even as she eventually accepted his ring. More powerful was Marieke Heebink’s brief turn as Duchess of York, in which her devastating final curse left Richard on his knees, alone and emotional, before she marched away from him. Richard’s brutality towards women came across clearly when he grabbed Margareta by the throat while turning her curse against her, but it was the women who lingered in his mind, as was made apparent when Anne’s ghost appeared twice and Richard attempted to embrace her.

As the production drew to its close, all of the entrances onto the stage were shut down; heavy doors cut off the wings, and the video screen descended to floor level to block off the upstage entrance. Richard sat alone in an enclosed space, with only one hatch opening briefly to allow Stanley to offer a report. Richard rattled around in this enclosed bunker, railing against ghosts and ranting about the battle. Alone, he built up a perfect frenzy, screaming – screaming – for his horse, before beginning to gallop round the stage, building up speed and desperation as he did so, while the screen rose again to reveal the ensemble waiting to reclaim their kingdom. This simple moment was all the more effective for coming at the end of a very long and very still production. Rarely has a Shakespeare production involved so much sitting around in armchairs talking; yet the ensemble made the conversations, the cutting of cakes and the simple waiting absolutely gripping. But Richard’s vigorous energy as he ploughed towards his death felt like a final pay-off, all the history leading up to his fall boiling up in a kinetic display. The stillness of Richmond – played by Nasr, the cycle coming full circle – suggested a sobriety and dignity to the new rule, a rule implied through the reverse lineage of the play’s opening to eventually culminate in cute little baby George.

While King of War primarily focused on the driving urges and performances of its monarchs, the production’s external framing played a key part. Intertitles detailing the historical events were often insightful (I’ve never seen the actual tactics of Agincourt so clearly displayed) and even contradicted the statements of characters (the true number of English dead, as opposed to the report Henry receives). The production was haunted also by the choric figure of Steve Dugardin, a sublime countertenor whose requiems and laments connected the individual experiences of rulers in a loftier soundscape. And even if the production’s overt politics were muted, the images of the dead left in corridors and on hospital gurneys pointed to the human cost of self-serving decisions to go to war (presumably unintentionally, the abandoned patients and corpses also evoking the direness of a society which doesn’t look after its healthcare system). As a treatment of three very different approaches to kingship, and as a highly sophisticated technical achievement, Kings of War justified its scale.

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