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Ivo van Hove’s Kings of War review at the Barbican Theatre, London

Hans Kesting (Richard lll) in Kings Of War at the Barbican Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In 2009 Ivo van Hove and Toneelgroep Amsterdam staged the Roman Tragedies, a six-hour splicing of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, at the Barbican. Now the in-demand director – his distinctive take on The Crucible just opened on Broadway – returns with Kings of War, a similarly epic, if rather more conventionally staged, merging of the War of the Roses plays, a knitting together of Henry V, Henry VI parts I-III and Richard III playing out over four and a half hours – in Dutch, with surtitles.

Each of the plays has its own distinct flavour within the wider world of the production. Jan Versweyveld’s map-room set has a vaguely 1970s feel. A white-walled corridor (of power) has been wrapped round the back of the main playing space and scenes in this section are presented via video, in a combination of live footage and the occasional seamlessly integrated pre-recorded sequence. Here we glimpse illicit things and the milky-eyed dead laid out under pristine sheets. The St Crispin’s day speech is delivered as voice-over and there is a particularly delicious bit with some sheep.

Four and a half hours is a long time to spend in the company of any production, but like the best marathon theatre, Kings of War has a submarine quality. The outside world comes to feel very far away. It’s hypnotic, an effect enhanced by the use of muted trumpet and the occasional haunting interjection of a countertenor singing fragments of war poetry. Even so there are moments where it drags, where you grow a little tired of watching men in suits shouting at other men in suits (in Dutch). But just when the melancholy ebb of Henry VI starts to feel a little strained, the whole thing transforms once more.

Van Hove’s take on Richard III feels genuinely audacious thanks to Hans Kesting’s juggernaut of a performance, his face port-wine stained, his gait subtly spidery. He’s menacing yet gentle, charming yet repulsive – mesmeric, magnificent. His Richard is fixated with his own reflection and spends long minutes starring at himself in the mirror, head cocked. In one bold moment he drapes a rug round his shoulders like a cloak and contorts his body, monstering himself, charging round the stage like a bull.

Kings of War is the antithesis of Trevor Nunn’s jutting, strutting history cycle. It’s a production of wit and precision – a rose-red smear of cake on a plate mirrors the drops of blood on the arm of one of Richard’s victims; the metronome tick of the final scenes, as Richard sits bunkered and alone with his ghosts, is particularly potent.

The text has been intelligently filleted, subplots excised, and the production moves with the pace of a Scandi-thriller, a modern power play. Monarchy here is a costume, a gift and a burden. It is too heavy for some men and makes beasts of others.

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Hans Kesting conquers an intelligent, epic staging of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays