What: Kings of War
Where: Festival Theatre
When: 10 -13 March
How long?: 4 hours 30 mins, including interval
How much?: Premium $129, Concession from $49, Under 30 $30, ticket info here
Note: Performance is in Dutch with English surtitles
This is Shakespeare with stamina. I was exhausted by the end of it and I’d been sitting (albeit on the edge of my seat) for over four hours. I can’t imagine the discipline of the actors, singers, and musicians who make up this stunning exploration of Shakespeare’s English history plays. The five plays in this piece (Henry V, Henry VI Part I, II, and III, and Richard III), stripped back to their bones, explore the intersection between kingship and war in the Bard’s works. The edits made to the plays (vast swathes of material and characters are cut, and content is changed when necessary) serve to emphasise the preoccupation with how these Kings of War have shaped England, and how they utilise war in their rule. This production becomes less about the individual plays, and more about Shakespeare’s ongoing interrogation of bloody rulership.
The stagecraft is phenomenal: an entire structure upstage provides a second performance space, projected via steadi-cam to a large screen on stage. This second performing space became a battlefield, a party, a hospital, the Tower, a graveyard strewn with bodies. The sense that there were always more schemers hidden in the walls (particularly the manipulative nobles of Henry VI, or Richard III himself) was amplified by the hidden performance space. The use of the camera throughout, either the steadi-cam walking amongst the actors, or giving us insight into the liminal space upstage, or the fixed cameras looking down on the Kings from above, giving us something of an omniscient view of their inner turmoil, was superb, and something I haven’t seen taken advantage so well in theatre before. The use of technology to address soliloquys to offstage armies, instead of the traditional addressing of the audience, was particularly effective in Henry V. Henry V’s speech before the battle of Harfleur (“Once more unto the breach”) and his Saint Crispin’s Day speech (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) are not the rousing patriotic speeches used too often to glorify Henry, England, and war, but are propaganda tools used by a violent, conquering King, spitting them into a broadcasting camera. Richard III, too, uses the camera for his own glorification, playing the rock star preening before the cameras, singing along to heavy rock music. Henry VI, weak as he is, fears and shuns the camera, adding to his overall pathetic air.
Modernised clothing, set and language keep this production rooted very firmly in twentieth- and twenty-first century politics (Richard III at one point has phone calls with Trump, Merkel, and Putin, an interesting idea that, to me, came off as tasteless, one of the few missteps of the show). The entire production is in Dutch, with English surtitles, a daunting thought that turned out to add even more to the underlying themes of the plays. Given the overall theme of Englishness and who deserves an English crown, the Dutch language undercut the potential for jingoism or nationalism. The trimming of the plays (five plays in four hours is no mean feat) is all done with precision, turning Shakespeare’s words to the best use in exploring war, and cutting anything that doesn’t fulfil that purpose. Musicians and singers on stage provide fitting background while also maintaining the pomp and ceremony one would expect from the English Kings.
The actors themselves were powerful and emotive, with immense discipline. Ramsey Nasr as Henry V (and later as Henry Tudor) is particularly noteworthy, filling the role with solemnity, battle lust, aggression, and comedy (during his wooing of Katherine). Eelco Smits as Henry VI is heart-breakingly pathetic, seeming so young and lost amid the swarm of scheming nobles and his own femme fatale wife. Hans Kesting as Richard III is playful and mischievous, as well as madly evil and self-congratulatory.
This is certainly not for everyone – four hours of political intrigue, murder, war, and death entirely in Dutch is not an easy show. But it is spectacularly done, and even those who dislike Shakespeare will find something here to love.
4.5 out of 5 stars