He is finally alone in the bunker of power. The princes have been dispatched to the Tower where, soon, death will embrace them. Now there is nothing and no one to stop him.
A kind of irrepressible glee engulfs him.
He reaches for one of the three instant contact phones and amuses himself by pretending to call President Obama, adopting a kind of John Wayne accent in the process. Speaking not in his native Dutch, but in a faux cowboy drawl, accentuates the comic silliness. He follows with “calls” on similar phones to Chancellor Merkel and President Putin, in German and Russian respectively.
Then, he gets the crown of the realm from the safe. He places it atop his head and gleefully observes himself in the large mirror, enjoying the sight enormously. Suddenly, he starts to canter around the throne room, a slavering, huge monster, snarling and shrieking. He grabs a Persian rug and slings it over his shoulder, wrapping himself in it as if it were a ceremonial robe signifying monarchy.
His canter picks up speed and malevolence. He looks like some sort of modern day Minotaur – part human, part animal, all fury. His body gnarls and assumes misshapen positions; his speed increases. He is at once the evocation of every Richard III to have gone before him and altogether superior to them all. Chilling, magnificent, frightening.
This is Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s “after Shakespeare” treatment of the Bard’s Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1 – 3 and Richard III, directed by Ivo van Hove and now playing at the Barbican. At slightly longer than four hours, Kings of War is about half the duration of the usual treatment given to Shakespeare’s History Plays. In part, this is because Kings of War solely focuses on the inner workings of the monarchy and ruling classes and the lives of ordinary folk, so important in Shakespeare’s writing, are ignored; in part, it is because the language is mostly shorn of lyricism and poetry.
In some ways, the production is an endurance test. At points, it seems a very long time in the theatre. But when Richard III kicks in, and the full-throttle bravura performance from Hans Keating takes centre stage, it all seems worth it. Everything about the production leads inexorably to the climactic scenes in Richard III and they have a raw, savage and burning intensity which is magnificent to behold.
For the “My Kingdom for a horse” speech, the stage is flooded with shadow, tinged blood red and a single fluorescent light casts a bitter, garish and foul pall over proceedings. Keating takes the speech very slowly – the words erupting in singular fashion from the lowest pit of his despair; big, crackling, shattering sounds that have a guttural glamour, a shocking insightfulness. His Richard has been a cold, cruel and utterly psychotic killer and power-monger; the realisation that the end is near, that Richmond will take his crown cracks open what is left of his mind and the bitter outpouring, the evaporation of his devilish ambition is extraordinary, mesmerising.
No hunchback or deformed limb for this Richard. No. A suit that is too small for him makes him look a figure of ridicule; a large, prominent birthmark signifies his deformity and monstrosity, while constantly reminding one of the circumstances of his birth. Something about his gait is imperfect and there is a lugubrious quality to his manner and speech which suggests dullness when, in fact, this is the quicksilver mind in the room.
I have never seen a Richard III like this before and I doubt I ever will again. Keating transforms the role and possesses it utterly, completely. It is acting of the highest order.
While Kings of War pares back the poetry, reduces the language, mostly, to modern television script-writing, it adds a great deal. This is a multi-media, multi-perspective landscaping of Shakespeare’s fields of history. Van Hove’s long term collaborator, Jan Versweyveld, provides a setting which is cosy and dystopian simultaneously – there are labyrinthine corridors of power (all white, all the better to starkly highlight spilt blood and discarded corpses) which snake around the main throne room, which doubles as lounge room and operations centre. One part of the corridors is visible, constantly in view; the rest are exposed by cameras, images reflected on a giant screen which dominates the stage.
The emphasis throughout is on pageantry, tradition, heirarchy – and the corpses that support those notions.
So, action in the throne room provides one perspective. Action on the screen provides another. Elsewhere, either musicians or a DJ add a musical perspective; four trombonists provide a sense of pomp; a wandering counter-tenor (a superb Steve Dugardin) plaintively sings in tones that instantly spell history even though the setting and costumes are all modern, with syringes taking the place of daggers; occasionally, a cameraman will intrude on the action, reminding that these rulers are being watched.
Finally, there is the language itself. Every word is spoken in Dutch, apart from the quirky interlude with Richard III on the phone described above. High above the stage, almost so high as to dissuade attention being paid to it, surtitles provide a translation of what is said. You can watch the action or read the words, but it is difficult to do both at once and take in the full value of either.
But, in the end, the language here is subservient to the action, the energy on stage and the experimental nature of the communication of the narrative pulse. Character is conveyed through entirety of body language, careful, considered gestures and articulate attitude.
Ramsey Nasr makes Henry V implacable, more Tony Blair statesman than Tom Hiddleston warrior prince. Delivering his Once more unto the breach speech as a broadcast, he manages to conjure up notions of the reluctant monarch that was George V and Churchill vowing to fight them on the beaches. Harm Duco Schut completely conveys the fears of Prince Edward and later, totally differently, the fears of a doomed Prince of York.
As York and Edward IV, Bart Slegers is a triumph of dour elitism and Chris Nietvelt is quite marvellous as the cake serving Elizabeth, quite the match for Keating’s Richard.
Eelco Smiths is marvellous as a weedy, nerdy, impulsive and impetuous Henry VI – his scene lost amongst the goats in the white corridors of power is both ludicrous and powerful – as all politics inevitably is.
There are some comic touches. Tennis balls raise a good laugh as does the candlelit communing between Nasr’s Henry and Hѐléne Devos’ pretty, implacable Katharina. Keating vomiting up the cake he had been gorging on is both funny and shocking, and truly, the emphasis throughout is shock. The use of syringes as murder weapons is potent; the moment when Keating’s Richard bares his chest and puts a syringe into the hand of Devos’ mourning, angry Lady Anne, urging her to press its needle fatally into his heart, is brutal and terrifying. Milky, dead eyes and seeping blood wounds, kept in shot for long periods, and vicious suffocations add to the horror.
Van Hove uses ritual to give meaning. A red carpet is rolled out whenever a coronation occurs; Richard III rolls out his own carpet. All the Kings who are the War Kings are crowned following a procession that intrudes upon the stage from left to right; Richmond (Henry VII) is crowned in a procession that comes from the white corridors, directly to the front and centre of the stage – and unlike all those before him, his coronation, being “peaceful” involves every other member of the company, except the slain Richard.
Undoubtedly, this production was, in every way, superior to the recent Trevor Nunn helmed War of the Roses. Seeing it on the weekend when Shakespeare’s life was celebrated in Stratford upon Avon, on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, reminded one, forcibly, of the power and endurance and adaptability of Shakespeare’s works.
Van Hove reminds how splendidly drawn Shakespeare’s characters are, how intricate is his plotting and how clever his representations of power and corruption. Potency of relevance and spectacle over lyricism and language.
There’s the rub.