On a huge screen, Kings of War, starts with a list of British monarchs as long as your arm and there is a gentle laugh when, up-to-date, we are shown our undoubted Queen – followed by little Prince George, his dad William and his grandfather Charles each with a question mark. Well, who does know? Anyway it is a light-hearted start to a story of endeavour, success, failure, skulduggery, intrigue and lust for power in very high places, sacred and secular. It is Shakespeare’s words from his shortened plays, spoken in Dutch and translated into English surtitles – a mind boggling effort in itself. These are business-suited kings and would-be kings and well dressed consorts, puppets or schemers, all set to tell us how it was or is in the corridors of power wherever they may be.
Five of Shakespeare’s plays are encompassed in this four and a half hour show – Henry V, the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III all based on documents of the time and Shakespeare’s remarkable imagination and dramatisation. Meaty stuff on which to build a thrilling expose of that period in British history.
The stage is set up as a war room by Jan Versweyveld of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam and is directed by Ivo van Hove who marshals the 17 actors into symbolic lines as each king takes the crown by fair means or foul. Here is Henry Bolingbroke as was, now Henry IV who snatched the crown from Richard II, dying remorseful about that and deeply concerned that the crown is going to his son, lay-about, intelligent, ne’er-do-well Henry. Here is the slightly drunk looking larrikin Henry (Ramsey Nasr) thinking his father already dead, trying on the crown lying by his head. The King bursts the silence with angry remonstrance and grief and the young man, for the first time maybe, understands his father and promises he will change and be a king fit to rule. Once crowned King Henry V, he questions in a boardroom atmosphere, the Dukes, Lords and Earls, company directors as it were, about his right to the French throne. Is it legitimate? Deciding that it is, he appraises the mentally ailing French King, Charles VI (Leon Voorberg) of his intention to take the throne and receives in reply from the Dauphin an insulting gift of tennis balls indicating he’d be much better playing tennis and following his former activities than wasting his time making such demands. This small incident incites Henry to furious anger – and it’s war! Any thoughts about Trump and Kim Jong-un trading insults? “They will be met with fire and fury like this world has never seen.” “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.” That’s the thing they say about history. It repeats itself. Over and over again.
On to the weak, pitiable Henry VI (Eelco Smits) guided from a toddler by the Regent and caring friend, the Duke of Gloucester (Aus Greidanus Jr.), a man who is ever aware of the court vultures who wait, manipulate and plot. The Earl of Suffolk (Robert de Hoog) sent to fetch the king’s future bride, Margareta of Anjou in France (Janni Goslinga) to London for the wedding, has another way. She is cast by Shakespeare as forceful, cunning, cruel and ambitious with an eye on the throne for herself. Suffolk becomes her lover so that he can use her to manipulate the king. War again! Henry loses much of what his father gained in France. Evil is afoot and the king is like a tormented creature, torn this way and that like a mouse being mauled by a cat. He has no defence against the forces against him except Gloucester, ever protective, ever watchful but no match against the cleverness of the manipulators and the king’s own terrors. We are into the heart of these characters because they are so well realised. We may know from our history books what’s going to happen but this production brings home how it might have been. It’s check and check mate, everyone watching their back, alert for duplicity and danger and caught up in heady ambition and fear. War – the Wars of the Roses this time and with Henry gone, Edward IV (Harm Duco Schut) steps up to the throne.
Part 3 of the Henrys morphs into Richard III (Hans Kesting). Not for this director to present the familiar hunch-back in the role. Instead this is a tall man with a ponderous heavy step, his disfigurement in the form a large birthmark on his face. This prodigious portrayal recognises and revels in his own evil nature and gloats over his powers of manipulation and destruction, saying “I am determined to prove a villain.” For political gain he says, “I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter. What, though I kill’d her husband and her father?” and then says he will get rid of her once they are married. He has killed Henry VI, ordered the death of his brother, Clarence, followed by a litany, a veritable list of deaths of anyone perceived to be standing in his way including the two young Princes in the Tower. He is made King Richard III. As his paranoia increases, he is challenged at last, leading to war and the Battle of Bosworth Field where alone he stands unhorsed shrieking, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”
It’s a massive and complicated tale to tell but it is done with clinical precision in a modern setting so that we see and understand. Perhaps at the end of it we wonder at the longevity of the British monarchical system, despite a significant break, and at its chances of continuation. By its very nature, it must suffer turmoil and more than one annus horribilis. In this magnum opus, apart from Margareta, women play minor parts and, throughout, men change status and roles. It is a play so reliant on its actors that not one of them can be a weak link and none of them are. It uses the works of Shakespeare but, with the benefit of centuries of hindsight, it is played with veracity, intelligence and conviction. We nod to ourselves in recognition not only of some of the Bard’s great speeches but, having watched the machinations of parliament, the jockeying for power and dirty tricks of politics in our lifetime, we can see what a master Shakespeare really was and be grateful that those who put this marvellous piece of work together and that those who acted in it have come to Adelaide. The standing ovation was for every performer, every person who put it together, every technician and every member of the crew, for this is the work of a wonderfully supportive ensemble under excellent direction.
Toneelgroep Amsterdam presents
Kings of War
by William Shakespeare
Director Ivo van Hove
Venue: Adelaide Festival Theatre | King William Road, Adelaide.
Dates: 10 – 13 March 2018
Tickets: $30 – $129
Bookings: 131246 | adelaidefestival.com.au