If Ivo van Hove’s “Roman Tragedies” was a surprising medley of Shakespeare plays, his “Kings of War” history cycle, now running at London’s Barbican Center, is altogether more familiar, much like the Royal Shakespeare Company’s iconic “Wars of the Roses” trilogy, which spliced “Henry VI” and “Richard III” to show how despots seize control out of chaos. He extends the argument, however, to include “Henry V” and that monarch’s occupation of France. In doing so, he produces a scintillating study of political leadership, so that England’s Tudor kings look horribly familiar — none more so than Hans Kesting’s petrifying Richard III, a performance surely destined for the history books.
Van Hove — this season the director of two well-received Broadway revivals, “A View from the Bridge” and “The Crucible” — and his designer Jan Versweyveld seal the action in a cavernous, armor-plated war bunker, with vast maps on the wall and color-coded phones at the ready. War looks, at first, like an academic exercise, cut off from the soldiers strewn through a white corridor that winds round the back, seen on film (by Tal Yarden) that slips, seamlessly and slyly, between live action and pre-recorded shots. Increasingly, though, there’s no keeping the violence out.
From in here, Ramsey Nasr’s fresh-faced statesman, Henry V, invades France, seeking to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” — a line pinched from “Henry IV Part II.” As he kneels to pray, convinced he’s doing God’s will, it’s impossible not to think of Tony Blair, Afghanistan and Iraq. Everything follows from there. His son, Eelco Smits’ Henry VI, becomes an ineffectual interim leader — imagine Milhouse of “The Simpsons” as England’s king — undermined by scheming nobles and civil war, until Bart Sleger’s Edward, a ruthless political hitman, seizes power. The cycle is chillingly familiar: occupation, power vacuum, coup.
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What follows is far, far worse: a Richard III to make your blood run cold — so utterly, awfully recognizable. Kesting is, at first, as laughable as Donald Trump: an overgrown schoolboy, busting out of his too-small blazer. Though a physical threat — the muscle behind Edward’s coup — he’s lumbering and slow; a faithful lapdog rather than a gnashing rottweiler. The purpling birthmark on his face makes him seem almost pitiable, all the more so as he returns, over and over, to a mirror to stare back at his own sad eyes as he soliloquizes. Even as he fantasizes about the crown, picking up hotlines to world leaders (“Hello Barrack”) and playing King of the Castle with a rug for a robe, we dismiss him. More fool us. By the end, he’s holed up in a bare bunker, bodies piled up outside, paranoid and all-powerful, waiting as a single metronome ticks out the last days of his regime — a regime it takes another occupation to end.
Henry VI’s advisors walk the corridor like West Wingers; the thuggish Yorks become the Sopranos, suspiciously sharing a flan in silence. There’s a galling inevitability to the sweep of events, with some thrilling moments en route: Henry V’s awkward dinner date with Katherine of France (Helene Devos); Edward IV leaping at the Prince Regent’s throat; Kesting’s lolloping way with a lethal injection. It’s punctuated by coronation ceremonies: a red carpet rolled out, a new king wrapped in ermine, even as the last is slid into the morgue. Pageantry masks the power play. Trumpets drown out the discord. A lone chorister (Steve Dugardin) glides past, haunting the bunker with piercing tenor hymnals.
However, the need to drive the plot from play to play flattens it, dropping the patterns and the echoes of Shakespeare’s sub-plots: no Falstaff, no Jack Cade, practically no civil war whatsoever. Supporting roles are reduced to suits; the women — great parts like Margaret, Lady Anne and Queen Elizabeth — to vague powers behind the throne. Shakespeare wrote symphonies; Van Hove makes them almost one-note. It grows as it goes on, as you link causes to effects, but individual scenes seem thin, made almost prosaic by both the Dutch translation and the low-key acting style.
At the end of the night, it’s no matter; the overall thesis is too strong to care about the shortcomings. Its logical conclusion is so unspeakably grim and so uncomfortably close that you leave shaken. The image that remains is of Kesting’s Richard III, a joke that’s no longer funny.