By Bob Shuman
Kings of War, Ivo van Hove’s and Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s anti-heroic, anti-Romantic, anti-poetic staging of adaptations of Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, defines political leaders as small and ordinary, anxious and neurotic, much like WikiLeaks does in revealing the e-mails of current politicians. One can lead, one can’t, and one moves further and further into evil, but none of the characters in this modern-dress reassessment can escape the monumentality of what surrounds them, whether that be Britain’s foreign conflicts and civil wars, or the expansive stage of the BAM Opera House. With the compositional eye of an academic painter, or fellow lowlander Rembrandt, van Hove fills it and then begins overflowing onto the backstage corridors. At the same time, live video and film are shown, along with placard information and English super-titles (the acting is in Dutch), which gives viewers simultaneous long-shots and close-ups.
Kings of War is cinematic, cold, and shockingly and methodically accurate in its detail and depictions—van Hove is a director in two mediums really, and he is also a relentless visual editor, precise in theatrical suggestion and manipulation (the lighting and cavernous, adaptable settings are by Jan Versweyveld). Van Hove does not want audiences to feel as much as think, though—and he has taken the theories of Piscator and Brecht as far as current technology can lead (Bergman is acknowledged, too, in terms of rigorous pacing, as well as in the footage of the various kings melding into one, as do the famous faces of Bibi Andersen and Liv Ullmann in Persona). The acting seems closer to mime or expressionism or even dance than the realistic work Americans are typically used to seeing–in fact, these actors rarely play to the audience; instead they are seen in profile–and it was virtually flawless last night, with special consideration for the work of Hans Kesting, as Richard III, and Aus Greidanus Jr., as Gloucester and Buckingham. These are arbitrary shout-outs, however, as the entire cast and musicians are excellent, including a counter-tenor, rarely seen (the two parts of Henry VI are seldom revived, too). Much more will be written about Kings of War–from staging the patriotic Henry V St. Crispin’s Day speech without actors to Richard III’s call for any horse, almost in slow motion, building to a physical trot and running in circles–because the production about medieval heads of states does nothing if not give an overwhelming example of the current state of theatrical art. There are only four New York performances and the production will close on Sunday, November 6. Attend if you still can, because, like the presidential election, no one’s going to stop talking about this for a long time.
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Press: Christian Barclay, BAM
Photo of Ivo van Hove: The Times.
Text © 2016 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.