Monday, March 12, 2018


KINGS OF WAR. by William Shakespeare.

Directed by Ivo van Hove. Translated by Rob Klinkenberg. Adaptation by Bart Van den Eynde and Peter Van Ktaaij. Composer Eric Schleichim. Costumes An D’Huys. Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Festival Theatre. Adelaide Festival Centre. Adelaide Festival. March 10 – 13. 2018.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

KINGS OF WAR. Toneelgoep Amsterdam; Photo: Jan Versweyveld
After its triumphant appearance at the 2014 Adelaide Festival with the Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam return with the company’s internationally hailed production of Kings of War. Over four epic hours, director Ivo van Hove and his ensemble of seventeen superb actors play out their adaptation of William Shakespeare’s history play, Henry V, Henry Vl Parts 1,2 and 3, and Richard lll Toneelgroep’s theatrical masterpiece spans the fifteenth century from Henry v’s conquest of France at Agincourt through the subsequent loss of territories under his son, the weak and manipulated Henry Vl (Eelco Smits) to the defeat of the Plantagenet King Richard lll (Hans Kesting). at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and the ascension and coronation of Britain’s first Tudor, Henry Vll.
Ramsey Nasr as HenryV. KINGS OF WAR Photo: Jan Versweyveld
As I look at the images of future and past monarchs from Prince William to Henry V  as they flash upon the large projection screen, I am reminded of the Chorus’s introductory words from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” let alone a century of battles, intrigues,, murder and regicides. Toneelgroep lends credence to the prophetic words of Richard ll at an earlier time: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”.  
For those fortunate enough to have been amazed by the company’s earlier production of Roman Tragedies, Kings of War will also surprise and jolt one out of any complacent revisiting of familiar works or traditional productions of Shakespeare’s chronicled histories. The production opens on a vast stage, representing a war cabinet room with a kitchenette, a large central table, a single bed and computer screens. Above the kitchenette, trumpeters herald the various coronations. From the central room long white corridors lead to other parts of the palace. The production is spoken in Dutch with surtitles in English, except during Henry V’s courting of the French princess, Katherine, when they appear in French.  It is a scene, rich in comical awkwardness, and as modern as any attempt to express oneself without a common language.
A roving video camera operator follows the action, capturing close-ups that are projected onto the screen while the real action occurs on the stage, and pre-recorded footage captures the deaths of characters and Henry Vl.’s bewildered wandering between a herd of oats, gathered in the cramped and narrow corridor. 
Eelco Smits as HenryVl. Photo: Jam Versweyveld

A steely tension charges through the unrelenting history of the time. Dressed in modern day clothes, and accompanied by the technology of our time, the actors play out the political drama with a powerfully understated will. Driven by their lust for power, their cruel ambition and their unremitting intent,the members of the court grapple with their dangerous survival tactics. Desperate means to desperate ends may have changed during the passage of time, but van Hove’s production reminds us of the universal nature of power-hungry ambition. Except for the historical facts occasionally projected on the screen, and the ritualistic placement of the crown upon the king’s head and an ermine cloak upon the shoulders, Kings of War contains a salutary commentary on our time.

Hans Kesting as Richard lll in Kings of War
The court of kings could as easily be contemplated as corridors of political power in  parliaments of today. Even Shakespeare’s verse is pared back and couched in contemporary idiom. An audience may still recognize the vestige of Henry V’s speech on the Feast of Crispin as it rises to almost fanatical crescendo. The power of the passionate orator still reverberates with the language of Shakespeare, stripped back to speak to a modern age. The audience is caught in a web of engagement, one moment watching manipulative and insidious political and personal machinations happening upon the stage, and then gazing on true intent in an actor’s clos-eup before glancing swiftly at the translations above the stage. There is no chance to veer away from the production’s immense power. A moment missed may still be captured as the performance carries the audience along, lurching from one murderous act or bitter confrontation to another.
Bart Slegers as Edward lV. Photo: Jan Versweyveld

Van Hove’s actors are the masters of their craft. Some are recognizable from Roman Tragedies. All are one. This is ensemble work par excellence. Flawless in their understanding, brilliant in their ability to capture the hearts and minds of an audience and absolutely unique in portraying the individual nature of their character, each actor seamlessly fuses past and present in a magnificent portrayal of the universal human condition.
The final image stands as a lineage of monarchs, their wives, their chidren and the kingmakers of the court. At the head of the line stands Henry Vll, played by Ramsey Nasr, who also plays Henry V. The drama has come full circle with the promise of a new beginning. The production stands high as a gripping and enthralling re-imagining of Shakespeare’s histories. Van Hove holds as ‘twere the mirror up to nature” in which we see the reflection of the past within the reality of our present. It is no wonder that the audience leapt spontaneously to their feet in rapturous ovation.