Kings of War by Toneelgroep Amsterdam – Review

Kings of War is a five hour trilogy of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III performed chronologically in Dutch, directed by Ivo van Hove and brought to the Barbican. 

When I walked into the theatre I immediately forgot I was in a theatre. The set was very simple, and yet very effective. A 70’s feeling office was set up and the men in power were already on stage. It immediately gave the audience a sense of the first play, and the theatre that  is normally always buzzing before a show starts was almost entirely quiet, just watching the men walk around the stage, and admiring the set. There was even a live ‘band’ on stage that provided the music that gave the scenes the suspense they needed. There was also a man singing operetta-like war poems, which sadly didn’t work for me at all. The man seemed out of place on the stage and every time he walked on in his dramatic way, I couldn’t stop myself from giggling. If they had placed the man next to the band, where he was less prominent, I think it would’ve been wonderful. As it was, it was just distracting.

The set changed three times, fitting it with each play. Some of the set changes were during the show, but they fit in perfectly. In the end there was nothing but a chair and bad lighting. It was really simple, but extremely effective and catered to all of the plays in their own unique way.

Behind what the eye could see, were tunnels that were part of the set. Sadly, the audience couldn’t see in them, so Toneelgroep Amsterdam decided to use cameras and screens for more of a fourth wall and modern feel. 

In the tunnels they hid soldiers, sheep, babies and mysterious plots that weren’t supposed to be heard by anyone. It was a nice touch for the audience to make us believe in the world more.

The cast had multiple roles so they could portray the three plays to the best of everybody’s abilities. It was a nice to see how a cast can be such a close company to tell three different stories. The cast was in sync and they felt like one big family, and with these three plays that worked perfectly.

My favourite play out of the three of them was Richard III. Hans Kesting portrayed him, and definitely put his stamp on the part. This Richard III seemed to me to have a heart. He was obsessed by his reflection in the mirror, and everything he wanted was based on the fact that he was never loved and came out of the womb looking gruesome. There was a moment where Richard III took the crown, placed it on his head, picked up a rug, and pretended it was a cape and ran around the room for a couple of seconds. This childlike fun moment made me sympathize very much with Richard. It was just a silly, tiny moment in the play, but for a second I forgot all the gruesome deeds that Richard had done and could just see the man behind the monster. This all lead to me crying for him, when his time had ended and his doom arose.

After Richard’s death Henry VII came into power, and the same actor who portrayed Henry IV was crowned as Henry VII. This was a nice touch and made the play come full circle. 

This play brought tears to my eyes at moments that I would have normally found inappropriate, it made me laugh at silly truthful moments and it gave me a history lesson all in one. This 5 hour played worked because of the hard work the ensemble had put in, the simple set, and the beautiful stories by Shakespeare that had been cut to just the right length.


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