Theatre hottie of the month: April 2016
That was April in London (and New York) theatre-land - the bloody (dog) star-spangled month

Review: Ivo Van Hove's epic Kings of War, Barbican Theatre

9731_xFour and half hours of Shakespeare performed in Dutch (with English subtitles)? With Ivo Van Hove directing I rushed to buy a ticket. 

Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij have combined Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III into one epic play (there is also a smidgen of Henry IV part 2 at the beginning) which Van Hove has set in what looks like a war bunker.

There are three corridors (of power) that feed the bunker and a camera* follows the actors when they disappear down them, the feed appearing on a large screen at the back of the stage. Some of it is obviously pre-recorded - as much as I would love to believe they had a flock of sheep back stage - some of it is live. There are also cameras hidden on stage which film the action from angles not easily seen by the audience.

Kings of War begins quite slowly. Van Hove's naturalistic directing style has the actors in office mode. After the initial coronation scene which is done without speeches just a red carpet and a train of followers, in a device that will be repeated, there is little ceremony. Henry V (Ramsey Nasr) is portrayed more as a military leader at work than king, around him people sit at desks carrying out their usual tasks, finishing writing a sentence before responding to a question.

4716I wasn't sure it was going to work to start with, it felt sluggish but as the story gathers pace so does the production; it becomes a play of highlights and subtleties that combined to make something quite extraordinary. It is risky to strip out the fighting and battles in three history plays but in concentrating the action on the politics - the family politics - and personalities of the kings you get something different.

Van Hove creates drama out of the seemingly ordinary and domestic, building layers in the most innocent of scenes. On first look there doesn't appear to be much happening but there always is from the aide sticking pins on a map in the corner to the way a rival sits. For example, on paper the family and their advisers sitting around having cake shouldn't be quite so political and pregnant with subtext but the direction and performances make it so.

Seguing from the heroic and victorious Henry V straight into the young Henry VI, knowing all the politics that have come before gives a greater insight into context of the internal power struggles of the family. I've not seen any of the Henry VI's plays so this was my introduction. Eelco Smits* portrayal is of a young king, a puppet. He's bookish, malleable and portrayed as a victim of birth and family politics, his decisiveness coming too late. His is a tragic demise and you almost feel that he's better off out of it as the whirlwind gathers pace with the murderous ascent of Richard III (Hans Kesting).

Richard's murders are often clinical in keeping with the play's setting, think syringes rather than swords and are surprisingly effective. The bunker setting and Kesting's performance reminded me a little of Bruno Ganz's Hitler in the film Downfall. Condensing the play Richard's bloodlust and thirst for the crown is heightened which starts to send him mad. He locks himself away in the bunker where his behaviour contrasts starkly with the contained and calculated man when the family is around.

Amid the intensity - helped by live musicians and, later, a DJ - there is light relief in scenes such as Henry V's proposal to Princess Katherine (Helene Devos) delivered with such brilliant awkwardness while the French princess looks coolly on and then in Richard III's gleeful playing acting at being king.  

King's of War is bold in its ambition but its power is in its subtlety and in not treading well worn paths. Its an epic piece of theatre that cements Van Hove as one of the most interesting and exciting directors around. It is four and half hours long with one interval and I'm giving it five stars...and after all that bigging it up, its run at the Barbican was so brief it's now finished.

*Saw Eelco Smits on stage for the first time last year in Simon Stephens' A Song From Far Away. The character he plays is cool and assured, a little aloof and here Henry VI is completely the opposite; he's immature, bookish and malleable. I've always been drawn to actors that can transform themselves, lose themselves in a character in a way that utterly convinces (it's why Ben Whishaw is such a favourite). Smits is 39 but in this he has lost nearly 20 years, he utterly convinces as young adult.

Other Ivo Van Hove directed plays I've seen:

The Crucible, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (runs until July 17)

A Song From Far Away, Young Vic

A View From The Bridge, Young Vic