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Van Hove's 'Kings of War' is an intriguing trip

Power and leadership, can one exist without the other? Toneelgroep Amsterdam presented a sampling of three types of leaders on Sunday 14 June at the Holland Festival with 'Kings of War'. Three historical plays by Shakespeare about the struggle for power between the Houses of Lancaster and York together provided the fuel for this performance.

With big black letters on a white screen, like a movie sequel, the new king is announced over and over again. Their names: Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. British history in the form of succession and murder during the 14th and 15th centuries. All this written down and made into fiction by the world's most famous playwright William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616).

Shakespeare is dead, get over it.

This is where the shoe pinches, and not so much. For however poetic and how timeless William Shakespeare may be in general, it is still miraculous to interpret The World and The Man five centuries later with 16th-century glasses on. Not surprisingly, the Flemish playwright Paul Pourveur wrote the play 'Shakespeare is dead, get over it' early this century as response to the Blue Monday Company's marathon performance 'At War', based on eight Shakespeare plays. Romeo and Juliet's adolescent love and Othello's jealousy lend themselves more to eternity than caverns of these kings' souls. The text of 'Kings of War' an sich, skilfully and soberly translated (Rob Klinkenberg), provides little guidance or insight when it comes to all the Henrys, Edwards and their vassals.

Because, face it, our democratically elected leaders in the West no longer dispose of life and death of their people (so easily). And our own king, subject of succession, is a toothless tiger when it comes to concrete power. Only in a closed dictatorship like North Korea do you still have a leader with pedigree who will kill many when it pleases him. Shakespeare's texts are not a tool in this leadership study. It is the peerless duo Van Hove/Versweyveld who, with direction and form, bring urgency and context to the mechanisms of power in this century and continent.

The setting seems to be a warroom in a 1970s bunker, whose furnishings adjust for each king according to his leadership style.

With the good and wise Henry V (Ramsey Nasr), there are maps and tables. To the right, a niche for four horns and later a DJ. A baritone singing beautiful Renaissance songs regularly wanders the floor.

photography: Jan Versweyveld
photography: Jan Versweyveld

With the impressionable and pious King Henry VI (Eelco Smits), there is a large conference table in the middle with plenty of Bibles and room for bickering. Finally, the vengeful and power-hungry Richard III (Hans Kesting) ends up in a closed bare room with nothing more than a chair and his own haunting thoughts.

Show, don't tell

Behind the warroom is a clinical white corridor system where people squabble, fight and die, whether on hospital beds or not. Swords have become syringes. The ingenuity of associations with our times is certainly also in these details.

The throne is a wooden chair, a sofa or leather armchair: it does not matter. When the king sits, the king sits. What is always the same and solemnly handed over is the Crown. Every coronation is solemnly filmed from above and shown on a big screen at the back of the stage, just like the camera shots from the white underground corridors.

One of the most moving scenes in the show is created using this successful combination of live stage and film. On the front stage, an awkward Edward V and his bride Catherine of Valois kiss. Within ten seconds, we see both the course and end of their marriage thanks to a wonderful combination of theatrical and film technology.

photography: Jan Versweyveld
photography: Jan Versweyveld

Striking is the tight and high-quality ensemble playing in the first two movements, in which not a single dissonant sounds. However, an honourable mention is in order for how sensitively and subtly Aus Greidanus shapes Uncle Gloucester, regent of King Henry VI. The final act revolves around the evil Richard III and Richard III alone. It is Hans Kesting, who despite his disfigured appearance shows us evil as a kind and obliging figure, who, after a series of gruesome murders, speaks the relatable words "a man sometimes acts thoughtlessly".

Game of Crownes

So what makes this five-hour 'Kings of War' not a long sit, but an intriguing trip that is indeed relevant when it comes to power and leaders?

Such is the rich array of associations to series that haunt our collective consciousness. We discuss them weekly at the coffee machine and the internet is full of blogs when the boundaries of what we, the viewers, consider proportionate violence are crossed. For instance, the mega-popular fantasy HBO series 'Game of Thrones' bears a lot of resemblance to the period of the monarchs from 'Kings of War'. And Netflix has its own modern-day Richard III in the form of Francis Underwood in the series 'House of Cards'

Said series and others provide a benchmark when it comes to morality. A function that films and books also have, or rather had. We exercise our thinking about leadership and witness the use of power. What would we do as president of the US? What would we do if we had a defenceless young bride at our disposal? Watching this show is like watching contemporary series, an exercise of our conscience muscle.


Hannah Roelofs

Dramaturg, speech coach and student English teacher.View Author posts

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