When A View From The Bridge was playing in London, a phrase kept cropping up in reviews and features and people kept using it whenever the play was mentioned: ‘visionary Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove’. He’s earned the title by now, sure, but for a visionary there’s a lot about this epic cycle of Shakespeare’s kings that’s quite traditional. Genders, ages, races are all unimaginatively done by the book. The vision, then, comes from two places: the way it looks and the way it’s performed.
The way it looks is stunning. The stage is a huge Cold War style strategy room with red telephones and chunky old computers. We’re glutted with things to look at and details to take in. Seeing the whole set at once, as well as watching the camera screen, as well as reading the surtitles is all a bit overwhelming.
What’s very brilliant is that this set, as well as being set up to be absorbed from afar, is also carefully framed for a load of close up camera shots, captured by a roving cameraman. On top of that, two thirds of the set is invisible. Doors lead off to a warren of white-walled tunnels where the kings and coteries engage in West Wing style walk and talks, or where sudden flocks of sheep appear. In one scene, as the roving steadicam follows Henry VI through to the maze, it becomes a warzone, a WW1 trench scattered with casualties. Half of this piece of theatre is, in fact, a stylish film. Coronations are filmed from above like shots from Westminster Abbey.
There’s this real struggle throughout the four hours between something completely artificial, whose artifice and construction we are made to see, and then a detailed realism. They’re not mutually exclusive but on the one hand there’s an awkward date scene between Henry V and Catherine as Henry tries to tell her how much he fancies her. On the other, we’re allowed to watch the camera frame its shots and see the onstage reality turn into lovingly composed frames on the giant screen centre stage.
This continuum from reality to not is part of the fabric of the show. It starts with a naturalistic-ish Henry V. When battle begins, brass blasts its fanfare. Hal plays very human politics with diplomats and envoys over the phone. Maps are plotted and strings are pinned on the walls. But by the time we meet Tricky Dicky it’s all been magnified and enlarged to something slightly grotesque: Hans Kesting plays Richard for laughs – a lumbering manchild who learns to machinate. The video screen that he sits in front of, which until then had been relaying (what we assume to be) unedited scenes, suddenly show ghosts and weird effects. Reality keeps slipping away, and the identifiable political world that van Hove has established metastasises until it is something weird and bloody and fictional.
Each time a new play starts (although the Henrys VI are rolled into one), it’s like updating to a new operating system. Windows XP for Henry V: familiar in language and in the world it presents. Windows 8 for Henry VI: the unfathomable tangles of plot and nobles named after counties. And then along comes Windows 10 in the guise of Richard III: something that everyone expects to be dreadful, but turns out to be actually quite good.
Especially since it comes during hour 4. There’s no point pretending otherwise: it’s a slog. Bits of it are boring. When the interval comes, two and a half hours in, you kind of feel you’ve got the gist of it. Except there’s a major (and necessary) gear change between Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III. These kings are made to look much more like our contemporary politicians – right down to the lived-in suits, the anxious eyes and the pale faces. And then suddenly Hans Kesting’s Richard makes mockery of everything that’s come before: the coronation ceremony, the red carpet, the brass band. Solemnity is made silly.
One of this show’s oddities is in its language. Shakespeare, condensed and translated into Dutch, is then re-translated and fed back to the audience in contemporary English surtitles. Shadows of thoughts remain the same, but this is not Shakespeare’s language. But it’s quite refreshing to get to experience these worn plays all over again (even if the tedious storylines of Henry VI are interminable). For these Kings and for this production, war is not just a political, martial or ideological theme. It’s subtler and more self-referential than that: Van Hove draws the battle lines between what exists naturally and what’s constructed, between film and theatre, between fidelity to Shakespeare, and going off to have an affair with other texts, textures, forms and modes.
Kings of War is on until 1st May 2016. Click here for tickets.