In this much-heralded Shakespeare anniversary year, one might expect a certain respect for the works to prevail. In Holland it’s different. Under the tutelage of a Belgian, Ivo van Hove, a huge slice of Shakespeare’s history theatre has been filleted for the stage into something that might sit nicely on HBO alongside Game of Thrones. It opens at the Barbican on 22 April, a day before the official Shakespeare-death day four centuries ago. And it’s all in contemporary Dutch verse — four hours of it…
Kings of War starts with a photo, on a video-screen, of little Prince George. His infant form is followed in rapid succession by that of every English monarch back to Henry V. There, the display halts. Just below the screen ceremonial alarums are blasted out by four trombonists. The show, and pageantry, begin. There’s no doubt what this is to be about: the story of Plantagenet royalty as told by our greatest playwright.
Yet director Ivo van Hove and his designer Jan Versweyveld launch us into an emphatically modern world. The sleek actors of Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep, which van Hove has headed up for 15 years, march across a broad, busy, map-filled set, a military HQ buzzing with computers. The cast, ten men and four women, are dressed in natty suits, ties, shiny shoes: trouser suits, elegant dresses and high heels for the women. Everyone is miked. All the actors double or triple up.
What unfolds is a gripping reworking of a swathe of the history plays. It opens at the end of Henry IV, Part II, when Prince Hal purloins his dying father’s crown, and expands through a brisk Henry V and the three parts of Henry VI (though there’s very little there of the Wars of the Roses). It ends, after a spare and startling Richard III, with the enthronement of Richmond — cleverly played by the Henry V actor, Ramsey Nasr — as the first Tudor king, Henry VII.