Review: Kings of War

Toneelgroep Amsterdam returns to Adelaide Festival to present Kings of War, a captivating distillation of Shakespearean ambition.

There is a certain anxiety that comes with walking into a Toneelgroep Amsterdam performance like Kings of War. The length and depth of productions like this, and Roman Tragedies which played in the 2014 Adelaide Festival, is a daunting theatrical slope to approach as an audience member. Four-and-a-half hours of Shakespeare, in Dutch with English surtitles.

It is a great pleasure then, when this epic piece of theatre, itself a medley of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI’s three parts and Richard III is as enthralling as binge-watching your favourite political drama. Toneelgroep’s Ivan van Hove has stripped these chronological tales down to the bones of their plots, with flesh kept on the meatiest iconic speeches and events, which gives rise to an excellent feeling of continuity across a series of tonally different tales.

The glue that binds these stories together is, of course, those warring English kings. The performance is punctuated by the recurring motif of the sacred ritual of coronation throughout, as our players line up and slip into different roles, or carry over as the same character while we shift from one text to another.

The kings are mostly all power-hungry warmongers, but Toneelgroep casts each one in a very different light, be it the comparative virtue of Henry V (Ramsey Nasr), the gullibility of Henry VI (Eelco Smits) or the psychotic corruption of Richard III (Hans Ketsing). The tone of each section shifts as cleverly as the dynamic set too, yet the audience is constantly reminded that while times change, the essential workings within the corridors of power stay the same.

Speaking of corridors, the use of an offstage passageway, frequently filmed live by a roving videographer or with pre-shot material, deftly enhances the feeling of back-room plotting with scenes of scheming, murder and The West Wing-style roving conversations. All cast onto a large screen in the centre of the stage, these excellently framed shots allow van Hove to literally zoom into the microscopic emotions of the characters in such a grand story. The cast frequently switch their performance from stage-style theatrics to the nuance of screen close ups, where a tongue arrogantly pressed in cheek conveys something an audience would normally not spot from afar.

And it is a wonderful ensemble cast to watch. Those who take on only one role in the performance are excellent, particularly Hans Kesting as Richard with his incessant vanity and vulgar intimidation. But those who slip into multiple roles also do so with shape-shifting aplomb, including, but not limited to, Aus Greidanus Jr, Chris Nietvelt and Janni Goslinga.

Kings of War does have some issues in its sprawling reach, however. Certain crucial interactions, such as Richard III’s seduction of Lady Anne (Hélène Devos), do not feel entirely believable as the play moves speedily past their importance, relying on a degree of prior knowledge of the story for the audience to feel the full impact. The triple-focus between onstage action, the live-feed screen and surtitle projections can also result in the audience missing important beats.

That said, the reinterpretation of many of key moments adds weight to van Hove’s overall story arc, and its comment on contemporary politics and power. This is especially evident when Henry V’s calls to arms become regal propaganda broadcast to the masses, or how Richard III’s soliloquies — so often pushed through the fourth wall in other productions — are turned on himself as he grins into a mirror.

Taken together, Kings of War’s technical prowess, captivating performances and smart contemporary commentary proves an engrossing, memorable piece of theatre that never overstays its welcome.

Kings of War was performed at Festival Theatre on Saturday, March 10 and continues until Tuesday, March 13.

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