Alison Croggon reviews the Adelaide Festival: Kings of War and The Great War
One of the advantages of not being a crrrritic is that you’re not obliged to remain if a show is shredding your soul. You can simply leave, conscience-free, and do something useful instead, like accounts or chopping wood or putting down bait for cockroaches.
So let me put it on record that I returned for the second half of Ivo van Hove’s four and a half hour Shakespeare epic, Kings of War. I curled despairingly in my seat (the seats around me emptier than before) and watched in wonder as people voluntarily returned to the auditorium. It turned out that the second half wasn’t as excruciating as the first. So there’s that.
Admittedly, I had high expectations. The last van Hove Shakespeare production I saw, the sprawling six-hour Roman Tragedies, was revelatory. In what has become signature van Hove design, the stage was a contemporary hotel lobby which, like the Roman Senate or the Forum, served as an interface between public and private space.
It was a visual language familiar to everyone who watches press conferences on the news: anonymous beige couches, tables loaded with microphones, huge lampshades dangling from the ceiling, everywhere television screens with scrolling CNN footage, a coffee bar discreetly to the side. An LED strip displayed headlines and instructions: the audience was exhorted to tweet their responses to the show, and even given a dedicated wifi feed.
Van Hove’s stroke of brilliance was to invite the audience up onto the stage, so they became an instant forum crowd, the plebeians peering curiously at the protagonists. It gave the event a permeability and transparency that was instantly inviting and demonstrated how Shakespeare – in this case, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra – can speak both to its own time and the present, binding them together in a continuum of action, motive and event.
The early plays set up the grim machinery of political power and then, through the passion of Antony and Cleopatra, took us in to its visceral guts: the narcissism, the self-regarding destructiveness, the sheer seduction. Kings of War attempts a similar trajectory, with the first four plays – Henry V, Henry VI (Parts One, Two and Three) – setting up a framework in which the final, less drastically-cut drama, Richard III, plays out in a psychological close-up.
In conflating the so-called history plays, van Hove is following a directorial tradition that reaches back to Peter Hall’s inauguration of the Royal Shakespeare Company with The Wars of the Roses in 1964. It’s been taken up by many directors since, including Benedict Andrews’ stunning eight-hour War of the Roses for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2009. Not unincidentally, the history plays are also a major inspiration behind the Game of Thrones, George RR Martin’s phenomenally successful fantasy novels.
It’s tempting to see Kings of War as a study in decadence. The precise, complex dramaturgy of Roman Tragedies is hollowed out, a dumbshow of figures marching down the halls of History as they win and lose power. The plays are translated into Dutch, given some brutal dramaturgy, and then translated back into English. In Roman Tragedies, this exposed the tough dramatic structure of a play like Coriolanus. With Henry V and VI, it merely exposes a crude propaganda exercise for the British monarchy – indeed, for all patriarchies – that has little to zero dramatic interest: there is no Falstaff, for instance, and the few compelling women, all but incidental even in the originals, become impressionistic flashes: prizes for the predators, or figures of grief or hysterical rage.
The whole is coyly presented as an expose of the spectacle of power, fielding a random parade of ahistorical technological tricks that substitute for connection. The design includes contemporary business suits, various computer screens, a Churchillian war room complete with maps and a radar screen, and a 14th century crown that appears to be kept in a fridge backstage. Death is dealt by lethal injection on hospital galleys offstage. A camera follows the actors along endless white corridors projected to the screen in front as they march purposefully to power, or party in an acid haze (French soldiers before Agincourt) or push through a flock of sheep (Henry VI wishing he were a shepherd). There is a brass quartet (Bl!ndman) playing fanfares or droning ambient sound, and an admittedly gorgeously-voiced counter-tenor (Steve Dugardin) singing English Renaissance solos.
So much fuss, and yet none of it adds up to anything more profound than van Hove’s banal observation in the program that we are witnessing “the dark machinations of the people in power and the violence that their decisions bring about”. It has the unsatisfactory episodic gloss of the later series of Game of Thrones (minus the colour and sex): a feeling of rushed reportage that gives an audience little time to care about what happens to anybody. The flat sound design really doesn’t help: all the actors are mic’d and often I found myself scanning the crowded stage, trying to work out who was actually speaking.
All these elements add up, making the first part of Kings of War two of the most aggravatingly tedious hours I’ve spent in a theatre. It gave me plenty of time to wonder why we’re presented, over and over again, with this ritualistic façade: the tragedy of The Man (this production is all about The Man) driven by his implacable ambition, only to fall, slain by fate or his flaws or his rivals. The only solution to the anarchy of The Man’s spiritual torment is to return to the Wise Ruler (Henry V and Richmond, both played by Ramsey Nasr). And there you have the suffocation of the patriarchal imagination: as with capitalism, nothing can exist outside it.
To be fair to Shakespeare, much of this isn’t really his fault. But Kings of War does demonstrate what happens to the history plays when you remove most of the dramaturgy and all of their poetry. Shakespeare’s turned and precise metaphors are rendered as clichés, their resonance muffled or lost altogether. The teeming detail that enlivens Shakespeare’s work – the quality Harold Pinter called “the peopled wound” – is vitamised into a turgid froth.
Richard III, driven by a compelling performance from Hans Kesting, fares rather better than the other plays: for one thing, a ghost of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy still remains. Kesting, his face divided by a mulberry birthmark, is an antic, evil clown, the marginalised figure who seizes power to revenge himself against the society that mocks him. There’s an obvious political parallel here, hammered home with an iron fist when Richard sits down at the desk and pretends to call Donald Trump, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. It might have been interesting to see Richard III given the van Hove treatment without the weight of the first half: but in the shadow of those brutalised plays, its gestures still felt cheap and affectless.
Hotel Modern’s The Great War is a shorter, more modest enterprise that in one hour does more to illustrate the brutal effects of imperial power than the whole of Kings of War. Using live animation, it begins with a sketch of the outbreak of World War One played out across a map of Europe – the chain of alliances between the royal houses of Russia, France, England, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and so on that led to the disaster of the war.
Then it shifts to a soldier’s eye view, with texts taken from Max Beckmann, Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) and Prospert Eyssautier, a private who wrote startlingly frank letters to his mother almost every day as he struggled to survive in the trenches.
The stage again is intricate: Arthur Sauer, the foley artist, sits behind his range of instruments and objects controlling the sound, as the performers, Pauline Kalker, Arlène Hoornweg and Menno Vroon, manipulate puppets and cameras on a series of tiny stages. The texts are read as voice-overs from a lectern, and the images created by the animators are projected on a large screen overhead, so we can both watch them being made and see their effects.
The narration follows the outbreak of the war, which for the young soldier was an exciting romance in a summer landscape, to the stark images of the trenches: the sucking mud of No Man’s Land, the booby-trapped bunkers, the random, industrialised death. The animation, which employs toy soldiers and tanks, earth, plastic rabbits and birds on sticks, is surprisingly effective, bringing these images out of the glaze of familiarity into a fresh apprehension of their horror.
The narrative doesn’t emerge triumphantly into peace and victory, or bruit the hollow jingoistic platitudes about heroism that has been so prevalent with the anniversary of the war. Instead, it ends with a sequence in which, like the soldiers in the trenches, we watch countless corpses rotting unburied in No Man’s Land as they are gradually absorbed into the earth. Which is where, for around 41 million people, the story of World War One really ended.
Kings of War, by William Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove. Translation by Rob Klinkenberg, adaptation by Bart van den Eynde and Peter von Kraaij. Lighting by Jan Versweyveld, composition by Eric Steichim, music by Bl!ndman and Steve Dugardin, video by Tal Yarden. Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival, until March 13.
The Great War, concept by Herman Helle and Arthur Sauer, script and direction Pauline Kalker, Arlène Hoornweg and Herman Helle, sounds concept and foley artist Arthur Sauer, performed by Pauline Kalker, Arlène Hoornweg and Menno Vroon. Hotel Modern and Arthur Sauer, Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide Festival. Closed.
Alison Croggon flew to Adelaide as a guest of the Adelaide Festival