Monday, November 14, 2016

Kings of War: Shakespeare’s War of the Roses

 Ramsey Nasr (on screen, and right) in Kings of War. (Photo: Jan Versweyveld, Barbican Theatre in London)

Though the Belgian director Ivo van Hove has been a vital force in European theatre for the last quarter of a century (he’s fifty-eight), New York theatregoers have only recently had a chance to sample his work. Over the last year, though, they’ve been blitzed with it, and he’s developed a zealous fan base. Last season he mounted Arthur Miller’s The Crucible on Broadway while his version of Miller’s A View from the Bridge was at the Young Vic transferred from London. At the beginning of this month, the Brooklyn Academy of Music included his four-and-a-half-hour Kings of War, produced with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, of which he is general director, in its Next Wave Festival.

Van Hove is both visceral and cerebral – a distinctly European combination in the theatre – and I think he’s phenomenally talented, though like other wildly unorthodox directors (Rupert Goold and Peter Sellars both come to mind), you don’t look to him for consistency. His stripped-down View from the Bridge, with the forceful English actor Mark Strong in the central role of Eddie Carbone, was almost mesmerizing enough to make you forget the overstated, pedantic script. But he had less success with The Crucible, despite a cast that included Sophie Okonedo, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Camp, Ciarán Hinds and, oddly cast, Ben Whishaw as John Proctor. I couldn’t make sense out of his contemporary interpretation, which seemed to treat the witchcraft in the story as real, and anyway I’d really had it with that damn play, so I slipped away at intermission. (A former student told me the second half opened with a live wolf on stage; if I’d known that in advance, curiosity might have compelled me to stick it out.)

Kings of War was adapted by Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij from five of Shakespeare’s histories that, taken together, form a chronicle that overlaps with the end of the Henriad, most recently combined in the magnificent British TV series The Hollow Crown. The Henriad consists of Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V; Kings of War begins, but only as a touchstone, with the end of Henry IV, Part 2 – Henry’s death and the coronation of his son, Hal, as Henry V – and proceeds through Henry V, the three parts of Henry VI (Shakespeare’s earliest histories, which are almost never revived) and Richard III, the plays that cover the War of the Roses. Taken singly, Henry V is the happiest of the histories: it’s a war play that ends in triumph for the English and shifts in the last scene to a romantic comedy as the young warrior king-turned-lover wins the hand of the French Princess Katherine, whose country his troops have just defeated. But The Hollow Crown chose to end this final entry in the tetralogy on an ominous note by pointing out that Henry V died young of dysentery and that his ineffectual son, Henry VI, a mere child when he inherited the throne, managed to lose all the territorial gains of his father and, under him, the nobles( whose squabbles his father had subdued) began to plot against each other.

The Henriad is a series of great plays that are quite different from each other: Richard II is the story of a witty and complex courtier who loses his throne because he’s not a good king, and the Henry IV two-parter is a coming-of-age story (possibly the best one ever dramatized). The Henriad begins in tragedy – that’s the only fair way to characterize Richard II, I think – and ends high, whereas Kings of War starts high and spirals into contention, conspiracy, and back-biting. Van Hove and the adaptors clearly perceived it as a more contemporary vision of government, so it’s been staged in modern dress, on a set (designed by Jan Versweyveld, who also lit it) that looks like a war room and ends upstage in a section of a corridor that feels like it belongs in a hospital. A large screen sits above the action, just atop a sort of anteroom leading into the corridor, and it’s constantly filled with images. During the Henry V section it’s often used to convey the public speeches by the king, like the exhortation to the governor of Harfleur to surrender the town to avoid bloodshed and the beloved St. Crispin’s Day speech to his soldiers (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”). Henry V is played by the charismatic Ramsey Nasr, perhaps the most impressive in the superlative ensemble of fourteen actors, all but three of whom shift among two or three roles over the course of the show. In the Henry VI scenes, where Eelco Smits plays the earnest, bespectacled, weak monarch at the mercy of his duplicitous wife Margaret (Janni Goslinga) and her lover the Duke of Suffolk (Robert de Hoog), the video focuses mostly on acerbic or downright explosive private exchanges; we might be locked into a reality TV show and always at the moment when things have begun to go disastrously wrong.

A scene from Kings of War. (Photo: Jan Versweyveld, Barbican Theatre in London)

The first act of Kings of War is evenly divided between these two narratives, and it’s so gripping that when the lights come up you can’t believe you’ve been watching for two and a half hours. (I would have guessed that an hour and forty minutes had gone by.) Many things in it linger in your head during intermission, like Henry V’s exchange with the young soldier on the eve of the big battle and his charming courtship of Katherine (Hélène Devos) – she speaks in French, he in Dutch with English supertitles – and Henry VI’s meltdown when he learns that his uncle, Gloucester (Aus Greidanus Jr.), who has acted as regent since he ascended the throne as a child, has been murdered. Act two is about an hour shorter than act one but feels much longer. At first I blamed my own overexposure to Richard III: it’s not one of my favorites, yet this is the fifth time I’ve seen it performed in the last decade. But the real problem is that van Hove runs out of ideas, and even the audacious exchange in which Richard (Hans Kesting) woos Lady Anne (Devos) over the coffin of her husband, whom he himself killed, falls flat. I wouldn’t say there are no ideas. An intriguing mirror motif underlines the curious combination in this Richard of narcissism and emotional detachment that links him, in ways that other versions haven’t explored, to Iago. Kesting, like Ralph Fiennes in Rupert Goold’s recent London production, doesn’t set out to captivate the audience; he plays the character as a sort of lord of misrule, tempting the universe into chaos. He’s very good, and so is Chris Nietvelt as Queen Elizabeth, but much of this part of the piece feels intellectualized rather than organic. For what seems like an endless amount of time, the image on the video screen is some sort of berry pie; I stared at it for so long that I started developing silly theories about what the hell it was supposed to mean. (The red berry compote is framed by cream – a symbol for the War of the Roses?) Eventually the pie is divided among some of the courtiers, including Richard and Elizabeth, who are allegedly trying to bring peace to their troubled nation, and we have to watch for another mini-eternity while they spoon it into their mouths.

Van den Eynde and van Kraaij had to do a lot of serious cutting, and their choices to shape the material are intelligent, even if the most vivid parts of the Henry VI plays, the Joan of Arc story in Part 1 and Jack Cade leading the peasants’ revolt in Part 2 – to be honest, the only scenes I’d retained since I read the plays in graduate school three and a half decades ago – are among the ones that had to go. On the other hand, I’m not sure why they’ve altered the fate of Richard III’s ally Buckingham (Aus Greidanus Jr.), who escapes in this version before Richard can execute him and survives all the tumult.

Van Hove effectively employs four musicians, a brass quartet that mostly stands in an alcove upstage left, as well as a singer – a contratenor, Steve Dugardin – all working from a score composed by Eric Sleichim. For much of act two, the alcove is occupied instead by a sound mixer, and the visual shift is striking: we feel we’ve entered a more contemporary era, where sound, like everything else, is manipulated and we can’t see its source. I also liked the way van Hove incorporated the ghosts who visit Richard the night before the battle that ends in his death and the conclusion of his tyrannical reign: as he looks at himself in the glass – the culmination of the motif – and his reflection appears on the screen, his victims are superimposed on his image. Ramsey Nasr reappears in the small but crucial role of Richmond, whom Shakespeare portrays as a virtuous man, so we make the connection back to Nasr’s Henry V, and the grim tale of accession pauses at a moment of happiness that feels like hard-won relief.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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