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A CurtainUp Review
Kings of War
By Charles Wright

. . . What infinite heart's ease / Must kings neglect that private men enjoy! / And what have kings that privates have not too, / Save ceremony, save general ceremony? / And what art thou, thou idol Ceremony? / What kind of god art thou, that suffer'st more / Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers? — King Henry reflecting upon kingship on the eve of the battle at Agincourt. Henry V (IV, i, l.229-235)
kingsofwar Hans Keating as Richard III (Photo: Richard Termine)
Shakespeare's English history plays are generally produced singly rather than in tandem. This fact, a function of economic necessity, means that playgoers seldom get the pleasure of losing themselves in the awe-inspiring narrative sweep of the Bard's multi-drama depiction of the Plantagenet kings.

Ivo van Hove, the avant-garde director who stormed Broadway's battlements last season with two Arthur Miller plays, is currently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) with Kings of War, a streamlined amalgamation of Henry V, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard III. Produced by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the largest repertory company in the Netherlands, Kings of War transports Shakespeare's characters and themes to a present-day setting devised by scenic and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, who works regularly with van Hove.

Versweyveld gives the production a handsome look and feel akin to House of Cards and other recent high-end film and television thrillers. The striking visual elements of the production, including accoutrements of digital-age warfare, call attention to what's most timely about these particular Shakespearean dramas without reducing their literary stature. There's little or no gimmickry about the aesthetic approach of van Hove and his creative team — Kings of War is, first and foremost, a fast-paced, thoroughly compelling depiction of events affecting the English monarchy from 1414 to 1485.

The theatrical marathon begins with Henry V (Ramsey Nasr), the scapegrace prince from Henry IV (the "most comparative, rascalliest, sweet young prince," as Falstaff describes him), maturing into a responsible leader. The youthful monarch guides his army to victory over a larger contingent from France at Agincourt. As he wins France for his nation, he also wins a French princess (Helene Devos) as his queen. But Henry V leaves an infant heir on the throne when he dies of dysentery after a relatively brief reign.

What follows is pandemonium, with nobles and clergy scheming and vying to manage the young king's affairs. The earls of Gloucester (Aus Greidanus Jr.), Suffolk (Robert de Hoog), and Warwick (Leon Voorberg) and the Cardinal of Winchester (Fred Goessens) circle naïve, easily agitated Henry VI (Eelco Smits) like blue-blooded buzzards. And Margareta (Janni Goslinga), whom he selects as his queen instead of the woman chosen by his guardians, proves as adept at intrigue as anyone else in the palace.

Shakespeare likens the civil dissension in Henry VI to "a viperous worm [gnawing] the bowels of the commonwealth." With the cast, all members of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam repertory ensemble, giving colorful life to the rascals of the young king's court, the pace of the performance accelerates in this mid-section of the production. But van Hove and his actors really up the ante after the intermission when they turn their talents to Richard III. From there on out, Kings of War whizzes by with such velocity and wallop that a spectator may be taken aback to realize how late it is when the cast summons van Hove from the wings for an auteur's curtain call.

The lightning pace of the final hour and a half may be credited in large measure to the serio-comic performance of Hans Kesting as Richard III. One of three among the 14 players who aren't doing multiple roles, Hesting creates Richard's physical abnormality with posture and movement rather than prostheses. A splash-of-burgundy birthmark, created by expert application of stage make-up, gives his face a startling quality.

Kesting brings appropriate intensity to this character who confesses he "can smile, and murder whiles I smile," yet he infuses Richard's villainy with idiosyncratic mirth. He's undistinguished in appearance and demeanor and repugnant from his first utterance. Yet he conquers both Lady Anne (Helene Devos) and the audience with superb comic timing in the scene beside the coffin of Henry VI (one of the greatest seduction scenes in dramatic literature).

Versweyveld's intriguing scenic design is inspired by Winston Churchill's Cabinet War Rooms (now part of London's Imperial War Museum). Located under Whitehall, the Cabinet War Rooms are the site from which the Prime Minister secretly directed the United Kingdom's activities throughout World War II.

Though the stage of the Howard Gilman Opera represents only one chamber, Tal Yarden's video contributions (mostly displayed on a gigantic screen suspended above stage center) transport the spectator through the corridors of this Plantagenet retreat. Like Churchill's subterranean bunker, the environment of Kings of War is windowless; but it's a modern command station, devoid of the claustrophobic qualities of Churchill's hideaway, with whirring and throbbing electronics and constantly changing visual effects on screens, monitors, radars, and other devices of the digital era.

Countertenor Steve Dugardin and a brass ensemble (Konstantin Koev, Charlotte van Passen, Daniel Quiles Cascant, and Daniel Ruibal Ortigueira) known as Blindman Brass perform original music by Eric Sleichim throughout the production. Sleichim's score is at its best when it employs harmonies and rhythmic patterns reminiscent of medieval music. It's less effective when underscoring scenes in the manner of run-of-the-mill movie music. Shakespeare and the talented Toneelgroep actors don't need underscoring — they're amply capable of creating suspense, awe, terror, and any other dramatic effect on their own.

Kings of War, commissioned by Barbican London, Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris, and Wiener Festwochen, is in New York for only four performances. Performed in Dutch with English supertitles, with a running time that exceeds almost any other show in town at the moment, the production may seem daunting to some playgoers. That shouldn't be the case. Except for the Dutch dialogue (and those supertitles), an evening with these kings is like a binge-session of House of Cards.

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Kings of War by William Shakespeare
Director: Ivo van Hove
Translation: Rob Klinkenberg
Adaptation: Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij
Dramaturgy: Peter van Kraaij
Cast: Helene Devos (Katharina/Lady Anne); Fred Goessens (Cardinal/Rivers); Janni Goslinga (Margareta); Aus Greidanus Jr. (Gloucester/Buckingham); Marieke Heebink (Duchess of York); Robert de Hoog (Dauphin/Suffolk/Clarence); Hans Kesting (Richard III); Ramsey Nasr (Henry V/Richmond); Chris Nietvelt (Montjoy/Leonoraa/Elizabeth); Alwin Pulinckx (Exeter/Prince of Wales); Harm Duco Schut (Williams/Prince Edward/Prince of York); Bart Slagers (Chief of Staff/York/Edward IV); Eelco Schmits (Grey/Henry VI); Leon Voorberg (Charles VI/Warwick/Stanley)
Design and Lighting: Jan Versweyveld
Costumes: An D'Huys
Music: Eric Sleichim
Video: Tal Yarden
Running Time: 4 hours and 25 minutes, with one intermission
In Dutch with English subtitles
Presented by Toneelgroep Amsterdam
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue
>From 11/3/16; closing 11/6/16
Reviewed by Charles Wright at November 3rd press performance

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