Kings of War @ Museumsquartier, Vienna, Austria, 2015Adaptation

  • Ludwig Schnauder

Kings of War; directed by Ivo van Hove for Toneelgroep Amsterdam at Museumsquartier, Vienna, Austria. Seen on 5th June 2015

Reviewed by Ludwig Schnauder


Ivo van Hove first introduced himself and the Toneelgroep Amsterdam in Vienna in 2008 with his superb Romeinse Tragedies (Roman Tragedies), an adaptation of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra. In his latest project with the same company, Kings of War (<>), he has turned to Shakespeare’s histories and, unusually, has combined the York tetralogy with Henry V. The more than five-hour-long adaptation by Bart Van den Eynde and Peter Van Kraaij, translated into Danish prose by Rob Klinkenberg, premiered in the Austrian capital as part of the Wiener Festwochen (an annual international arts festival) and was shown with German surtitles. The general aim of the adaptation (in particular Henry V and the Henry VI plays are presented in severely cut versions) is to bring out the different types of rulers even more clearly and to contrast their approaches to dealing with power. The focus on rulers is already indicated in the very beginning of the production when the audience is shown a picture of Prince George, one of the future kings of England. Then we move backwards in time to a portrait of Henry V, whom we see ‘in person’ a moment later taking the crown from his dying father before being crowned king himself. The coronation scenes – which are always staged similarly with pomp and circumstance – will  serve as structural principles of the evening. A rather problematic premise of the production is to treat Shakespeare’s plays as docudramas rather than imaginary recreations of historical events.

As with his production of the Roman tragedies, Ivo van Hove does not just want to tell a story about the past but also to comment on the workings of politics and power in the present. In his aesthetics and his narrative technique he is clearly influenced by TV-series such as House of Cards or 24. According to the programme notes, the model for the central playing space (Design: Jan Versweyveld) is Churchill’s war room in which the British leader planned the battles against Nazi-Germany. Thus there are the cast iron walls of a bunker, wooden desks with old-fashioned telephones and maps illustrating battle positions. This is, however, anachronistically mixed with computers, TVs and a huge, moveable video-wall above the central opening in the back wall of the stage. Among others this huge screen is used to reveal what goes on in the seemingly labyrinthine corridors behind the stage, to provide historical background information on the story, to enable two strands of action to occur simultaneously, or to show close-ups of the actors filmed by mobile camera teams. In addition to live-video, another medium employed throughout the production is music (Composition: Eric Sleichim): a countertenor, a brass band (four trombonists) and a DJ provide a soundtrack inspired by Renaissance chorales and requiems. The costumes (An D’Huys) refer to the present: the actors are mainly dressed in business outfits or uniforms.

Ramsey Nasar as Henry V is a power-hungry and competent ruler who seems to vanquish France by sheer force of will. The conquest proceeds in fast forward mode and is presented similar to CNN news via video screens. Henry’s confidence only crumbles when he tries to woo Catherine (Hélène Devos) over a fancy dinner and simply blathers on without paying attention to the fact that she cannot understand him. Moments later Henry is dead and his son, whom we have just glimpsed on the screen as a baby, has grown into a man and has assumed the throne. The contrast to his father could not be greater. Henry VI (Eelco Smits), who more often than not appears in pyjamas, likes to pray and to study the bible in order to escape from the world and the responsibilities thrust upon him. When he needs to take decisions his face contorts in despair and his eyes behind large glasses fill with tears. In contrast to other recent productions that incorporate the Henry VI plays (e.g. Luk Perceval’s Ten Oorlog or Stefan Kimmig’s Rosenkriege) no bloodthirsty battles are shown in Kings of War and the only murder is that of Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester. Physical violence is largely replaced by the brutal power politics, intrigues and negotiation tactics carried out by the various factions gathered around the conference table in the war room. As the character of Richard Plantagenet seems to merge with that of his eldest son Edward (Alwin Pulinckx), the seizing of power by the York family appears more straightforward than in the original and the first part of the evening ends with the crowning of Edward IV.

Richard III, which follows after the interval, has not been as severely cut as the other plays and therefore Hans Kesting has the opportunity to develop a complex, multi-faceted protagonist. Disfigured by an oversized liver spot in the middle of his face and knock-knees, he speaks his opening soliloquy to a mirror (containing a camera) which immediately draws attention to his egomania. A drawback of Kesting’s impersonation is that his Richard largely lacks comic spirit. At the beginning Richard manages to come across as a harmless family man who enjoys spending time with his relatives in the York living room. Only when the crown is within his reach does he reveal his true monstrosity. Nevertheless, this is a Richard who eschews bloodbaths; his preferred killing method is the syringe which he continues to refer to as his ‘sword’. That his machinations lead him into existential isolation is emphasized by a completely empty stage once he is king. Before the Battle of Bosworth Richard sits on his leather throne with his back to the audience in front of the video wall, on which ‘the ghosts’ of his victims appear and merge with his own reflection. When his defeat approaches his fluent soliloquies and exhortations to his (non-existent) troops fall apart until he only manages to scream isolated words. While the video wall glows red and the rest of the stage is in darkness, Richard, who has become a monstrous shadow himself, rides an imaginary horse round in circles. As the sun finally rises over Richmond and his entourage, Richard disappears into the corridors backstage. Richmond, the Lancastrian and token of England’s bright future, is quite fittingly played by Ramsey Nasar, who also impersonated Henry V. He thus brings the play full circle.

Kings of War is an extremely ambitious production that impresses through the Toneelgroep’s superb ensemble-acting, the effective integration of various media and the way it manages to tell a story both about the past and the present. Paradoxically, the production would have been even more compelling if more cuts had been introduced. Because most of the action is so fast paced some of the dialogues and soliloquies which remain uncut seem needlessly lengthy; sometimes it is also difficult to see why some scenes (e.g. the condemnation of Eleanor) have been included at the expense of others.


© Jan Versweyveld

Kings of War: The crowning of Henry VI (Eelco Smits)

Ludwig Schnauder

Author: Ludwig Schnauder

Ludwig Schnauder is an independent scholar based in Vienna. He holds a PhD from the University of Vienna where he has worked for many years as a lecturer and researcher at the English department. He has co-edited three volumes of essays on drama and Anglo-German cultural transfer and has published a number of essays on the performance of Shakespeare in Austria. He is currently engaged in writing a performance history of Shakespeare at Austria’s national theatre, the Burgtheater.