Kings of War

Theatre, Shakespeare
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Director-of-the-moment Ivo van Hove thrilling mashes up three of Shakespeare's plays

In the last few months it feels like Belgian director Ivo van Hove has gone from being one of those distant European geniuses whose work could only be seen in brief surtitled stints at the Barbican, to one of our own. His Young Vic ‘A View from the Bridge’ was hailed to high heaven, he’ll be making his debut at the National Theatre later this year, and as one of the last people to work with David Bowie – he directed his off-Broadway musical ‘Lazarus’ – he appeared on tellies when he gave a few news interviews on the great man’s death.

Still, that’s not to say he isn’t still making surtitled European work that can only be seen in brief stints at the Barbican. Arriving just in time for the Shakespere400, Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s ‘Kings of War’ is a Dutch language mash-up of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays: ‘Henry V’, ‘Henry VI parts 1-3’ and ‘Richard III’ (plus a tiny splash of ‘Henry IV part 2’).

Big Hove fans may have their hopes up for a sequel to his astonishing ‘The Roman Tragedies’, the seamlessly flowing, six-hour, audience-interactive blend of the Bard’s Roman plays that stands as one of the most audacious Shakespeare productions of the modern era. 

In truth the (non-interactive, four-and-a-half-hour-long) ‘Kings of War’ is a more conventional, less virtuosic piece of work, but it’s still gripping stuff. Where ‘The Roman Tragedies’ and most War of the Roses cycles attempt to homogenise the plays, Hove cheerily zaps off the other way. While all share a similar setting – a techy, vaguely Cold War-ish command centre – each has a different mood. ‘Henry V’ is presented as a taut, ‘West Wing’-ish thriller; ‘Henry VI’ is a sad, slightly whimsical pastoral (complete with sheep!); and ‘Richard III’ is a surreal horror-comedy. 

Hans Kesting puts in the stand-out turn as a lumbering, grotesque Richard, but really the star of the show is Van Hove’s editing: shorn of Shakespeare’s ornate language and byzantine sub-plots, these are lucid, pacey productions. ‘Henry VI’ is the great revelation, three waffly plays condensed into one gripping, moving story. But all three benefit: when the Brits revive these plays – as Trevor Nunn did recently – we tend to so with fusty pomp and circumstance, but even with a conventional staging, Hove’s take feels thrillingly modern.

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