Sensible people would probably say that 4.5 hours of Dutch Shakespeare is too much sand to swallow on a Friday night. Let alone a compilation of his history plays that with the connotations of the worldwide wars of today could send the overworked brain into an epileptic melt-down. But put innovative director Ivo van Hove at the rear and somehow you’re transfixed by the frontrunners of European acting talent, a modern context which switches your dusty political brain on and shows that Shakespeare can say so much about the world we live in today. Put on the right glasses, look for the similarities and you’re left with Kings of War – a reflection on the basics of leadership skills and war-disasters certain politicians could do well with studying up close.
Focusing on what goes on backstage in political affairs we follow three leaders at war from their offices, a suffocating environment of tricks, scandal and bloodshed, all produced from the mind. The night starts with a picture-projection of baby George, counting down through history, until we hit Henry V and his war-cry against France. Through alliances, betrayal and cold calculations we follow history through to the feeble Henry VI unto Edward IV, and lastly the famously destructive Richard III.
Playing with live film and the power of media, Ivo van Hove throws a cameraman onstage and shows what really goes on behind the scenes of war politics, projected onto a big screen. White corridors are hidden behind the stage, and as characters run on and off (including a stellar cast of confused backstage sheep!), we follow them on camera through the webs of plots devised against the monarchy. It divides the action with an exciting twist, and as we know it’s live, it’s somehow incredibly thrilling knowing what goes on behind the king’s back. It proves a more interesting design choice than the actual set, a modern office of domestic coldness, with a clinical eeriness that can be a thrilling match to the plot but also jar against it at times. Jan Versweyveld’s slick design always has clever little tricks popping up along the way, but sometimes it longs too much for a naturalistic, indoor set to really support the text. As the night evolves the set changes with the different power-houses, but it’s strongest with Richard III as he locks himself in his empty space with only the big screen as a frightening mirror of truth. Eric Sleichim’s composition cleverly plays with the dramatic changes of political climate, from unnerving soundscapes, to a live brass band and into a lounge-like mood-scape that shrieks of corruption.
Toneelgroep Amsterdam proves itself an immaculate ensemble of mind-blowing actors, all with a cold steeliness to their depiction of Shakespeare’s historic characters, which not only invites us to really search for their motives, but also adds a heightened tension to the night that slightly resembles Nordic Noir. Ramsey Nasr brings great passion, earthiness and humour to the proactive Henry V, followed by a fantastically awkward Eelco Smits who’s timid and naïve Henry VI has such heart and humanity the night seems mainly his. Hans Kesting is frighteningly vain and malicious as Richard III, and as he seeks understanding and companionship from his own reflection in the mirror, the depths of his troubled psychology starts to unfold. With the women being admirably fierce and direct, and an ensemble of great intensity, I must admit I’ve never seen a cast so faultless. Hats off to their dedication and Ivo van Hove’s masterly direction.
Kings of War at the Barbican is a thrilling reworking of Shakespeare’s history plays, cleverly setting them in a modern context that subtly echoes the world of today. It’s played with fierce coldness and marches on ruthlessly, though it’s filled with darkly funny interjections along the way – Richard III conversing with the questionable leaders of today being one of them. It’s a night hard to swallow just for the length and juggling of subtitles and action – but setting aside the occasional design clutter it is a production full of fantastic performances, brilliant physical imagery and film-work. It will not only take the history plays into a wider context, it will also tell the brutal but great stories of leadership long gone. An exciting international company worth the 4.5 hours. And an exercise in decoding Dutch.
Kings of War is playing the Barbican until 1 May. For more information and tickets, see www.barbican.org.uk
Photo: Jan Versweyveld