by Carol Rocamora
Four times – in the course of Ivo van Hove’s stunning Kings of War – a carpet is unrolled, a procession files in, and a new English king is crowned. The outcomes are momentous. Each new monarch faces life-or-death struggles, including political survival, treacherous opposition, and the threat of war.
Now, with the traumatic news of an impending “coronation” on our own shores, the urgent message of Kings of War hits home even harder.
Van Hove, that daring Belgian-born director, has condensed five Shakespeare plays – Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II, III, and Richard III – into a spectacular evening of political theatre. Its gripping four-and-a-half hours fly by faster than any other current production half its length. Its aim – to present portraits of three English kings who ascend to power and face its responsibilities and dire consequences. The decisions they make will affect the lives (or deaths) of hundreds of thousands of their subjects. What topic could be more urgent today?!
As performed (in Dutch with subtitles) by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, van Hove’s 14-member company, this historical pageant begins with Henry V’s coronation (1413). We watch Henry (Ramsey Nasr), an ambitious, headstrong young king as he mobilizes an army, invades France, conquers it, marries the French monarch’s daughter, and dies. Henry is a study in decisive leadership – a compassionate, responsible king who cares deeply for his subjects and fights heroically alongside his soldiers.
Henry VI, his son (Eelco Smits), crowned in 1422, is a study in contrast.
A deeply religious, introverted king, he lacks his father’s charisma and his appetite to rule. Retreating into a hermetic existence, he allows warring factions to usurp his power, and ultimately caves in to the rival house of York, whom he appoints as his successor.
Finally, there’s the arch-villain Richard III (crowned in 1483), who murders Edward IV, Henry’s successor. Power-mad, murderous, manipulative, and perverse, he shamelessly seduces one of his victim’s wives (“I won’t keep her long,” he confides) and continues to slaughter anyone who stands in his way. Grotesquely deformed since birth, he’s enraged by that injustice, and his vengeful thirst for power is insatiable. He’s finally killed in a battle led by Henry Tudor, who succeeds him. Hans Kesting (a Frank Langella look-alike) delivers a frightening performance as the monstrous monarch.
The thrill of this modern-dress production lies in van Hove’s brilliant direction and Jan Versweyveld’s ingenious set design. The action takes place in multiple playing spaces on the BAM Opera House stage. There’s a wide office that functions as the various kings’ war-rooms, an upstage white playing space, a balcony (from which a brass ensemble plays), and – invisible to the audience’s eye – a set of backstage corridors where scenes are played out, videotaped and projected on a huge overhead screen above the stage visible to the audience. Extraordinary moments of intrigue and violence take place in these secret, serpentine corridors – as vividly theatrical as those onstage. In Henry V, there are war scenes of grotesque carnage and depravity; in Henry VI, dozens of live rams and ewes roam (as in the countryside); in Richard III, the murderous manipulator makes some of his most lurid killings. The corridors are cluttered with hospital litters bearing bodies of dead kings and soldiers.
There are memorable moments onstage, notably: Henry V’s “Once more into the breach” performed on the huge onstage video screen; Henry VI’s kneeling before his plotters, begging for his throne; Richard III examining his grotesque strawberry-marked face (a substitute for the traditional “hump”) in a huge mirror, and then galloping around the stage in the play’s final, frenetic seconds (“My horse, my kingdom for a horse!”)
We’ve all followed van Hove’s meteoric rise as an international director and creative adapter of classical texts – from his versions of Moliere, Williams, O’Neill and Hellman at the New York Theatre Workshop to his sensational productions of Miller’s A View from the Bridge and The Crucible on Broadway last year. But for me, van Hove’s most ambitious and thrilling work is with Shakespeare – his Roman Tragedies at BAM in 2012, and now Kings of War, a jewel in his directorial crown and a timely warning for those who dare to rule today.
Kings of War (Shakespeare), directed by Ivo van Hove, designed by Jan Versweyveld, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, November 3-6 www.BAM.org
Photos: Richard Termine