In order to help us see past the words and into the dramaturgical heart of a play, in her essay EF’s Visit to a Small Planet, Elinor Fuchs asks us to: ‘Mold the play into a medium-sized ball, set it before you in the middle distance, and squint your eyes’. You could apply the same technique to viewing a production – and if you wanted to see good production dramaturgy at work, look no further than Ivo Van Hove. No longer a stranger to the British stage, Van Hove has treated us to a thematic re-reading of Antigone, a lateral cross-section of A View from the Bridge and a re-configuring of Scenes from a Marriage. Then there was the epic re-mixing of Shakespeare’s plays set in Rome (Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra) as the Roman Tragedies, shown at the Barbican in 2010. This trilogy lasted for 6 hours without a break, the audience was invited to come and go as they pleased (for most of the time), even mingling with the actors and camera-persons on the stage was encouraged, and computers were stationed on the stage for the audience to tweet live about their experience. In a pre-show talk, Van Hove and his dramaturg Alexander Schroeder explained that one of the driving dramaturgical principles for reconfiguring the play(s) was the way in which we experienced our own political reality as largely mediated via cameras and TV screens. Events unfold fast and sometimes we might miss a key moment because we’ve gone to the loo.
Similarities between the dramaturgical approach to the Roman Tragedies and Kings of War are there in the sense that the latter too is a splicing together of three, or technically five, of Shakespeare’s plays – Henry V, Henry VI, parts 1, 2,3 and Richard III. The unifying principle here, however, is not so much an examination of public space, but a comparative study of different forms of political leadership. The result is a 4-hour play (plus interval) consisting of carefully selected plotlines from specific Shakespeare’s Histories.
Needless to say, this is not a piece for the purists looking to see their favourite characters or hear their favourite speeches (not least because the performance is in Dutch). Contrary to the directorial principle favoured in the English-speaking world of putting the text on its feet, Van Hove and co-adaptor/dramaturg Peter van Kraaij are driven by a desire to explore their chosen theme in its full complexity – and in this way they honour the spirit rather than the words of the author.
To see the world of the play, Elinor Fuchs further advises: ‘Make the ball small enough that you can see the entire planet, not so small that you lose detail, and not so large that detail overwhelms the whole.’ In this brief reflection on the dramaturgy of Kings of War, I want to take two things from her recommendations – the squinting of the eyes and the relationship between the detail and the whole.
I should add some disclaimers. First, this will probably be of more interest to those who have already seen the production, and it might contain spoilers. Secondly, it needs stating that my viewing experience was strongly affected by a personal circumstance: having left a three-month-old human being at home who is currently mostly dependant on me for survival, my attention was divided between what was going on on stage and keeping an eye on my phone for any emergency calls. This did help considerably in the process of squinting the eye and keeping the relationship between the whole and the detail in check, though I would by no means recommend it for any future viewings.
When asked for my verdict at the end, I came to a realization that this time round I didn’t enjoy every minute of the production (which at times felt painfully slow) but, as every time beforehand, what I did really enjoy about Van Hove’s work was the ability to see extremely clearly the engineering of the piece. If you have seen Van Hove’s work before, you might have come to expect that there will be a moment of perfect clarity, when the penny drops and everything makes sense. Sometimes it’s there at the outset (in Scenes from a Marriage it is the realization of the piece’s circularity), sometimes not (in Antigone the moment might have been easily missed). On this exceptional occasion, I had to resort to reading a review in the interval in order to decide whether to stay or go back to the baby. And then I realized that the first half was only a means of framing the second, the two only existed because of each other, the penny was yet to drop.
Having obsessed lately about how directors read plays – and specifically how they arrive at their own metaphorical rendering of the plays’ content – I’d like to imagine that Van Hove began with reading Richard III and perhaps (given clues from his production) thought of it as the dessert of the Histories cycle. Richard is, at least in the first half of the play, irresistibly delightful. Later he is increasingly mad. The section of the piece corresponding with the story of Richard III (and specifically Act 1, scene 3 with Queen Elizabeth, the wife of the sickly King) opens with a teatime sharing of a fruitcake in one of the richly carpeted royal salons. It ends on a desolate, nearly empty stage. Once again, I imagine Van Hove might have asked himself what it would be like to be in the head of Richard by the end of the play and – drew an analogy with a dripping tap. The only objects present on the stage by the end are a kitchen sink lit with a neon light and a beating metronome.
It is only at the end that the beginning makes full sense. Richard’s royal predecessor, Henry V, is by contrast, a hesitant, unwilling but extremely talented and very popular ruler. While Richard famously seduces Lady Anne over her husband’s dead body, Henry is sweetly bashful in his first encounter with his future wife, Catherine of France. Which is staged here as a dinner date. (Perhaps it is a dinner preceding the dessert of the finale, so to speak?) And evoking the security that this ruler engenders – what it must be like to be in his head – is the interior of a submarine, conjured up by choice elements of the set (maps and radars and busy navigation consoles), and the sense that we are inside while being outside could be lethal.
In this constellation, Henry VI with his fear of power and ultimate abdication of the crown is only a counterpoint to the binaries established by the other two kings. In adulthood he still looks like the crying baby that he is when we meet him on camera for the very first time.
Within this mechanism, of course, there is plenty of space and time for nuance, the way the film and music are used in the production are thought-through, the colour-schemes, the props, the white ‘backstage’ corridors. But these are often just dramaturgical condiments, and carefully selected vintage wines with which to wash down the main feast.
At least that’s what I saw when I squinted my eyes.
Kings of War is on at the Barbican Centre until 1st May – for more information on the production, visit the Barbican website.