FTA Review: ‘Kings of War’ a powerful, hauntingly relevant Shakespearean adaptation

The theatrical centrepiece of this year’s FTA plants Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III into the modern day

Toneelgroep Amsterdam presents ‘Kings of War’ (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Eight years after presenting the monumental Roman Tragedies to Montréal audiences at the 2nd edition of the FTA, Ivo van Hove returns to the festival with a new Shakespearean trilogy exploring the psyche of men in power, Kings of War. The renowned Flemish artistic director of the Dutch repertory theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam has here reimagined and reworked five of the Bard’s history classics – Henry V, the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard III – to contemporary language and environment on an epic scale. It’s an exhilarating marathon multimedia production blending theatre and cinema that rings alarmingly relevant, even in its transposition of the text across the centuries.

‘Kings of War’. With: Hélène Devos, Jip van den Dool, Fred Goessens, Janni Goslinga, Aus Greidanus jr., Marieke Heebink, Robert de Hoog, Hans Kesting, Ramsey Nasr, Chris Nietvelt, Harm Duco Schut, Bart Slegers, Eelco Smits, Leon Voorberg (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Featuring a first-rate ensemble cast of fourteen actors, five musicians, and one videographer, Kings of War is here compiled and compressed into a four hour and a half splicing (presented in its entirety, the series lasts at least 24 hours) of Shakespeare’s aforementioned works, retranslated by Rob Klinkenberg and thoroughly adapted by Peter Van Kraaij and Bart Van den Eynde.

With the Hundred Years War between England and France and the Wars of the Roses as backdrops, we witness the coming of power (and impending coup) of each new ruler: the transformation of the fresh-faced Henry V, whose intractable ambition propels him to victory; the ineffectual reign of his son, Henry VI, who, albeit of a high moral standard, lacked the political instinct, performative charisma, and drive of his predecessor; and, in his turn, the terrorizing tenure of the egotistical, backstabbing Richard III, the menacing royal subject of Act II.

The linear narrative, punctuated by successive red carpet coronation ceremonies, thus unfolds with the monarchs and their advisors, courtiers, and kin engaging in backroom dealings of murders, marriages, and military operations in an office drama of sorts. Kings of War is of an understated fury; violence is ubiquitous and graphic depictions of homicide – whether by lethal injection or suffocation – go uncensored. Even it its grandeur, however, the piece is of a naturalness and sincerity grounded in human truths. Confronted with high-stakes decisions of life and death in times of turmoil, each sovereign reveals himself in his use – or abuse – of power. Isolated from the battlefield, they weigh the interests of the nation with those of the self, at times prosperous in their governance, but oftentimes misled by the voices from outside and within.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam presents ‘Kings of War’ (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

Scenographer Jan Versweyveld has here devised a behemothic stage bunker equipped with monitors, phones, and surveillance gadgets galore to connect the commanders and corporate high-flyers to the outside world. Footage by video designer Tal Yarden captures complex stagings and classified conversations that transpire in the labyrinthine white corridor wrapping the war room (it’s a simple but thrilling layout), with both real-time projections and seamlessly integrated pre-recorded shots materializing on the omnipresent centrepiece monitor. Evincing government propaganda and media manipulation, the camera is tactfully employed as an instrument for distortion.

The 2D and 3D action are underscored by a layered soundtrack by sound designer and composer Eric Sleichim, which too combines pre-recordings with live renderings. The more memorable and effective of the musical interjections are those of the brass band (Max Van den Brand, Charlotte van Passen, Daniel Quiles Cascant, Daniel Ruibal Ortigueira) and the countertenor voice of Steve Dugardin, who lend a regal and resplendent virtuosity to the spectacle.

Toneelgroep Amsterdam presents ‘Kings of War’ (Photo: Jan Versweyveld)

The production is nothing short of breathtaking in the minutiae of its aesthetics and technical effects; it’s a grand feast for the eyes and ears indeed. Smoke and mirrors aside, though, what truly reverberates is the agelessness of Shakespeare’s work, which, in its profound assimilation of the human condition, proves once again to be transcendent in tearing the fabric of space and time. The rhythmic and rich language of the originals are, of course, here lost in the sur-titling, but it allows one to experience and interpret the familiar scenes anew. And, even in Dutch, there is striking clarity in the storytelling, facilitated by the exquisite acting of Toneelgroep troupe. Some of the sub-plots have been dropped (no Falstaff or Jack Crade here) and roles of notable female figures (cue Margaret, Lady Anne, and Queen Elizabeth) have been reduced in the consolidated piece, but the creation stands imperforate in what it strives to achieve.

Kings of War is hauntingly pertinent, drawing great kinship to prominent personalities of our own era. With leadership as its central theme, it presents itself as an extraordinary exploration and exposition of man at his most noble, vulnerable, and perverse: passionate in his vision, awkward in the matters of love, and/or vicious in his self-serving machinations amid the wagings of war. The production is one of the main draws for the FTA this year, and lives up to the spectacular hype it does.

The 12th Edition of the Festival TransAmériques presents


Shakespeare + Ivo van Hove | Toneelgroep Amsterdam

Théâtre Denise-Pelletier
(4353, Rue Sainte-Catherine Est.)

Language: in Dutch with English and French surtitles

May 24, 25, *26, 27 at 7 p.m.
*Meet the artists after the performance

4h30 including one intermission

$69 to 85

514 844 3822 | 1 866 984 3822 | www.fta.ca

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