Kings of War (Holland Festival)

Michael Coveney reviews Ivo van Hove’s reimagining of ”Henry V”, ”Henry VI” and ”Richard III” which will come to the Barbican next year

Hans Kesting in Kings of War
Hans Kesting in Kings of War
© Jan Versweyveld

The latest from Ivo van Hove – director of A View from the Bridge and the Juliette Binoche Antigone en route to Edinburgh – is a sleek, chic look at three consecutive Shakespeare kings, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III.

The production at the Amsterdam Stadsschowburg (as part of the Holland Festival) arrives at the Barbican next April, in the wake of the RSC’s far more traditional take on the first great historical tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V), and will re-birth all sorts of arguments about modern appropriations of Shakespeare in a contemporary climate.

It might prove a sort of stylised sorbet after the main course, for van Hove’s immensely enjoyably four-hour show, which somewhat dutifully compresses Henry V into eighty minutes and Henry VI (all three parts!) into an hour (no Talbot, Joan of Arc or Jack Cade), reaches its proper destination in its eighty-minute skitter through Richard III; Hans Kesting, knock-kneed, loping, badly dressed in a bum-freezer jacket, big purple birthmark on his face, is one of the best ever intellectually warped Crookbacks.

He’s part of a limited take on these great plays: a study of kingship, of personality in power, devoid of Shakespearean context. Even the translation (according to the English sur-titles) is not Shakespearean. But the brilliance and beauty of van Hove’s staging catapults an idea of Churchill’s cabinet room as a power base and domestic environment (carpets, sofas, all mod cons) into an upstage, white antiseptic clinical asylum of corridors and cameras, a labyrinth of killing that meshes – as only van Hove can mesh—video and live action.

Fourteen actors, four trombones and a ghost-like counter-tenor create a series of show-downs marked by red carpet coronation rituals culminating in the only one that comes downstage centre (the others are from the side), that of Richmond as Henry VII, followed by a line of successors… these will meet the show’s opening photo gallery of baby George, Prince William, Prince Charles, Queen Elizabeth II, her father and grandfather, Queen Victoria, and so on through to Henry VII.

Alwin Pulinckx, Aus Greidanus Jr. and Ramsey Nasr in Kings of War
Alwin Pulinckx, Aus Greidanus Jr. and Ramsey Nasr in Kings of War
© Jan Versweyveld

It’s great to see van Hove at work with his own Toneelgroep again; neither A View from the Bridge nor Antigone have, for me, rivalled his work with his own actors in the Roman Tragedies, the Antonioni project or the Strindberg Scenes from a Marriage, all previously presented at the Barbican.

In this instance, though, the sheer exuberance and ingenuity of the Richard play rather exposes the paltriness of the treatment of Henry VI, inaccurately played as a snivelling wimp, and the awkwardness of compressing the "heroic" action of Henry V into this reductive setting.

Still, the imagery, and the visuals, are irresistible: Henry V (Ramsey Nasr) wooing Katherine at a dinner table as on an awkward first date, elbows and plates in conflict; Henry VI (Eelco Smits) seeking a shepherd’s life and finding the corridor of corpses replaced by a flock of jostling woolly baa-baas; a cheesecake tea party interrupted by news of Clarence’s death by syringe (the favoured weapon of murder – "Take up the sword or take up me" is an invitation to death by drugs); and Richard rejoicing madly in a moment of premature power play in his hotlines to Obama and Putin.

Only in Richard’s case does the performance really take over the production, and all the great scenes are assimilated. The actors, however you view their interpretations, are all excellent, especially Kesting, great casting as Richard. In his final throes, the images of his victims are superimposed on his sedentary position and he’s then isolated in silhouette against a blood red background.

He becomes the horse, a horse, he cries for, galloping at speed around the stage until he achieves an ultimate state of physical release – something you feel he’s never had before – and then instant oblivion, in a cinematic white-out. It’s a gloriously ghastly climax to a smart, compelling collision of conceptual intelligence and Shakespearean realpolitik.

Kings of War runs at the Barbican from 22 April 2016 – 1 May 2016. For more information and to book tickets, click here.