Since all we can think about is the impending election right now, imagine you go into the polling booth on November 8, and find this ballot: Henry V, Henry VI or Richard III. That’s easy, you think. Richard became a pathological liar and a serial murderer to eliminate his adversaries. Henry VI was crowned as a baby but had no political chops, letting himself be ruled by his wife and counsellors. That leaves Henry V, a reformed frat boy of sorts, who morphed into a charismatic leader against everyone’s expectations, led the English into a decisive victory against the French in the Hundred Years’ War and united the two kingdoms with his strategic marriage to Catherine of Valois. Whew! We can vote with a clean conscience.
Well, not so fast. As Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War can confirm, just in time for Election Day, there are no innocent souls in politics. This latest production from Toneelgroep Amsterdam, which embraces Shakespeare’s chronicle plays spanning the Wars of the Roses, opens with a photo montage of British rulers running in reverse, beginning with Princes William and Harry. It’s a tip-off that this will be an eyes-wide-open critique of power and its cascading effects from one generation to the next.
We’ve already seen several abbreviated approaches to classic texts on political power this season: Romeo Castellucci’s one-hour reflection on Julius Caesar and Peter Brook’s only slightly longer Battlefield, taken from The Mahabharata. Van Hove shares their focus and goes straight for the kill, fashioning Kings of War as a dispassionate, coroner’s autopsy of the English ruling class. The show may clock in at 4.5 hours, but in that time, van Hove splices together Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III. And since these can hardly be understood outside of their contexts, namely Henry IV’s usurpation of the crown from Richard II and the resulting enmity between Yorks and Lancasters, the production is, in effect, a five-history-play-evening (six, if you count Henry IV’s two parts separately) in the time it takes usually to perform just two and for the price of one.
That’s a feat, though it does come at the expense of Shakespeare’s lyricism and humanity (in Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij’s adaptation). Van Hove excises everything that is not immediately relevant to his purpose, which seems to be to show how the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons. It’s a morbid, merciless story that sucks us into its vortex. The action opens with Henry V’s coronation and ends with Henry VII’s, but as both roles are played by Ramsey Nasr, the feeling of déjà vu is unmistakable and deliberate. The evening is a parade of identical coronations, in fact, wherein a red carpet is hastily rolled out, a stone-faced royal entourage falls into line, the ermine mantle and crown barely graze the person of the king and everyone disperses as fast as they can get away. Repeated with four different rulers, the ceremony captures the disabused mood of these families locked in conflict as if on an endlessly repeating loop.
But van Hove’s telling of the tale is riveting, start to finish, even when it looks familiar. Jan Versweyveld‘s set is reminiscent of his design for Lazarus (at NYTW in 2015), with a central panel for Tal Yarden’s video projections, a wide, lateral stage to facilitate the movements of the large cast, and a recessed, elevated musician’s box, containing a quartet of trombones in the show’s first half, replaced by a DJ in the second (a contratenor, Steve Dugardin, also wanders the stage). Within this cleanly drawn frame, however, the interior designs effectively convey the evolving ambitions of the royalty, from conquest to infighting to leisure and then war again, as the action moves from spartan war room to cluttered board room to richly furnished living room and finally an empty bunker.
Toneelgroep’s excellent ensemble (last at BAM in Angels in America in 2014) rarely cracks a smile as it carries the weight of Van Hove’s intentions. They are mirthless, ruthless, loveless characters, and completely fascinating. To mention only the three kings under examination: Nasr gives us a pragmatic, almost sleepy Henry V, who delivers one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” before the battle of Harfleur) as if from an oxygen-deprived summit; Eelco Smits’s Henry VI is fatally naive, with the excited gestures and wide-eyed expressions of a child; and the hulking Hans Kesting, with a purple birthmark slashing his face in two, is a vain and mischievous Richard, who can prank call world leaders in comically exaggerated accents, but who is also a truly frightening psychopath when he runs around the stage like an excited primate, with a grotesque gait and a contorted face.
The moral heart of these history plays lies with Henry V, the king who most feels the responsibility of his role, and considers it deeply. Is he responsible for the sins of the soldiers who die at his bidding, with unconfessed souls, or for the sufferings of their widows and children? Do any of the choices he makes justify the consequences they may bear for his subjects? On these questions, Nasr’s king struggles more angrily than compassionately in a discussion with a soldier on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, which is also the single occasion in which any of these rulers engages with his subjects. Van Hove frequently isolates his kings on stage, even in a crowded room; if we can feel anything vaguely ennobling for them, it might (and could only) be pity, at their loneliness in the exercise of power.
The dominant metaphor of Kings of War, however, could be described as the corridors of power; a good deal of the action takes place behind the visible set, in a warren of morgue-like white hallways where soldiers also sleep in preparation for battle, sheep roam and the dead enemies of those who are either in power or who are trying to seize it, pile up. These images are beamed out to us on video, some live, some pre-recorded, and they intensify a growing feeling of inevitability as the corpses of kings and nobles, laid out on gurneys, succeed each other, with Yarden’s camera lingering over their immobile faces in lieu of a eulogy. The exercise of rule may be lonesome but it should also strike fear.
Taken as a whole, these “kings of war” who run a gamut of personalities from selfish to insouciant to diabolical, make a chilling example of how rulers may not last but their decisions can have ripple effects for generations. The succession of coronations and their stilted staging give the impression of dominoes knocking each other down. However, in the deliberate absence of great emotion in either Nasr’s or Smit’s kings, van Hove lets Kesting’s monster loom larger than life, allowing him a backlit final soliloquy that, paradoxically, was the point where the production’s accumulated tension finally collapsed for me. The clinical detachment with which all the action takes place – and all the murders are carried out, mostly with mysteriously loaded syringes – was more frightening than this last, almost clownish show of force.
We may not wish on anyone the ballot we will face on November 8, but at least we live in a democracy. Kings of War can be read as a lesson for those of us who, unlike 15th century England’s populace, do have a say in who rules them. After that, though, we may only be as well off as Henry VI for whom the most appropriate response to the challenges of the day was a shrug of the shoulders and “God help us all.”