Toneelgroep Amsterdam: Kings of War at the Barbican
As the eponymous rulers featured in this cycle of three of Shakespeare’s historical plays prepare for war, marriage and even murder at various points, the audience must in turn gear themselves up for an overwhelming dramatic spectacle that remains relentlessly gripping over its four-hour length. Comic side characters have been necessarily expunged in order to focus unerringly on the world around the crown for portions of Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III. Despite this, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Kings of War is comfortably accessible without compromising an iota of creativity or experimentation, with the words of internationally revered director Ivo Van Hove ringing true: “With us, you have to expect the unexpected”.
The play commences with the coronation of Henry V (a steely Ramsey Nasr), who sheds his reputation as a hedonistic wastrel upon his first fumbling of the crown and proceeds to bring England great military success and subsequently tenuous peace in France. After this Henry’s early death comes another one, the sweetly incompetent Henry VI (Eelco Smits), aided by the Regent Gloucester (pitch-perfect Aus Greidanus Jr) until the royal man-child falls prey to both his wife Margareta (Janni Goslinga) and her lover, the manipulative Earl of Suffolk (Robert De Hoog), and rebellion by his cousin the Duke of York (Bart Slegers), who ousts him from the throne, thereby becoming King Edward IV. This leaves a pathway to the throne for Edward’s brother the deformed and ruthless Richard III (Hans Kesting in a mesmerising tour-de-force) who escalates the increasing chaos and bloodshed further…
The Barbican’s spacious set has been transformed into a cold military bunker for the opening act of the play, which in turn transforms into a plush suite with potted plants before Richard’s tyrannical reign sees the walls and floor stripped down to a barren wilderness. The stage is fittingly the location where negotiations are figured through, battle plans are laid, state addresses are broadcasted, unsuspecting victims ushered smilingly to their deaths, and so forth. The sanitised walls of the winding corridor behind the bunker set are just as vital for Van Hove and his team’s visual mastery with a handheld camera deployed to spy on the characters as they express their more intimate thoughts and feelings in “private”. It’s a stunning cocktail to say the least, with an overhead screen giving the audience a live feed of the actors in close-up, bolstering the intimacy in a way that only cameras can. This backstage area is a strange netherworld that changes throughout – at different points a torture chamber, a strobe-lit orgy of French soldiers partying to heavy metal, or even in one gorgeously surreal moment a grassy field filled with sheep.
The acting, music, staging and direction are all superb, but this would be nothing without a strong, dextrous feel for the material. Though the tone shifts throughout with the chaos intensifying, there’s a clever continuity established as what are merely dark undercurrents in Henry V’s sacrificing of his subjects for glory and his subtle coercion of his future wife become more overtly sadistic and grotesque by Richard III’s ill-fated reign. Kings of War leaves us with a stronger understanding about power: despite its allure, it’s an ugly thing that no-one should covet –and there is no such thing as benevolent power, only some who wield the ability to hide this unfortunate truth with more skill and tact.
Toneelgroep Amsterdam: Kings of War is on at the Barbican Theatre from 22nd April until 1st May 2016, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: