Long, long ago, in a cold land with an ancient wall up north, a handful of powerful aristocratic families fought for control of a coveted throne in a struggle that pitted brother against brother. Meanwhile, across the narrow sea, an exiled Targaryen with a trio of dragons gathered an army to take back her crown…no, no, wrong story. This is a different one—the OG War of the Five Kings, otherwise known as the Wars of the Roses, in which two cadet branches of the House of Plantagenet waged a bloody, all-consuming battle to rule fair England.
The tale of the squabbling descendants of King Edward III was a favorite of William Shakespeare, who devoted eight full-length plays to the subject (maybe with some help from Marlowe). Known as the Henriad, they stretch from the reign of the doomed Richard II—overthrown by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke—to the downfall of the monstrous Richard III at the hands of Henry Tudor (the grandfather of Shakespeare’s own royal patron, Queen Elizabeth). Now, five of those plays have been condensed and adapted by the Tony award-winning director Ivo van Hove and the theater group Toneelgroep Amsterdam in a four-and-a-half-hour homage—rendered into Dutch with quasi-Shakespearean English subtitles—that’s playing at BAM’s Next Wave Festival this weekend.
The production, called “Kings of War,” centers on Henry V (played by Ramsey Nasr), his son Henry VI (Eelco Smits), and their malformed, malevolent relative Richard III (Hans Kesting). All three rulers are still grappling with the shock dethroning of Richard II, a coup that reverberates through their battles of succession. Henry V, Bolingbroke’s son, mulls a foreign invasion in order to smooth over the civil wounds left by his dad’s power-grab. A generation later, his weak-willed and pious child, Henry VI, is impotent to stop his rivals from advancing their own designs on the crown.
Finally, after Richard helps his eldest brother, Edward, become ruler in Henry’s place—followed soon after by Edward’s suspicious demise—the hunchback king clings to power with a ‘might makes right’ strategy that turn his weak legitimacy claims into mere window-dressing for a tyrant.
Though war is in the play’s title—and though its spans some of history’s best-known battles—the clashes of armies happen offstage. The real action here is psychodramatic, as the rulers fight their internal passions and demons. Henry V struggles to outgrow his reputation as a wayward kid—Prince Hal, that pal of the bon vivant Falstaff—to become a powerful and pragmatic leader. Henry VI waffles and mewls, a sensitive soul who just can’t manage to make a stand for himself or his family even when their lives are at stake. And Richard III, well, we’ll get to him and his demons in a minute. Suffice it to say, they’re large enough to wreck entire families and nations.
Both the Bard and van Hove hold up Henry V as the model for what a good king should be. (One of Shakespeare’s most affectionate touches, calling his king “Harry,” is sadly left out of the Dutch production.) Henry surrounds himself with trustworthy advisors. He knows that the road to success lies through self-mastery. He is merciful when it is called for, and pitiless when he needs to protect not only himself but his nation.
Most of all, Henry cares about the human cost of war. He’s the only king we see interacting with his soldiers and the common people, disguising himself to move among them and know their minds. He agonizes over whether his claim to the French throne is solid enough to justify the potential loss of lives. And he solemnly feels the responsibility for those lives, noting that leaders stay up at night wracked with the worst kind of moral dilemmas so that their subjects may sleep soundly in their beds.
In fact, van Hove’s production lionizes Henry so much, it seems to come at the expense of his complexity. One of the thorniest decisions of Henry’s life—both historically and in Shakespeare’s play—occurs right after his famous win at the Battle of Agincourt. The English, heavily outnumbered and exhausted, have somehow managed to mow down their foes and capture a fair number of French nobles in the process. According to the chivalric rules of war at the time, these hostages should be allowed to live and be ransomed back to their country. But Henry gives the controversial order to his troops to slaughter their prisoners of war. It’s a command that makes his knights balk—even though it’s a tactically sound one. The French prisoners are still far more numerous than the English and could easily revolt and overthrow their captors. And so, as Henry sees it, they must die.
Such are the wrenching choices that face kings. In removing this detail, the Dutch play loses a chance to show Henry’s true ironclad depths.
Where Henry V has the inner fortitude to shepherd his country, his son just wants to be one of the sheep. Power is something that Henry VI shrinks from. He’s constantly dominated by stronger personalities—his regent, his queen, his queen’s lover—and these fraudulent counselors quickly run England in the ground, losing the French territories so dearly won by King Harry. Where the father knew what it meant to sacrifice for the greater national good, the son is mired in his obsessive pieties and fears. In his own ‘heavy is the head’ speech, Henry VI expresses no great concern for his people or his country. Instead, it’s a self-pitying monologue about how being king means that everyone wants to stab you in the back. True, in his case. But his father also faced death plots, and that didn’t deter him from ruling.
Never mind—Henry VI wishes for a quieter life. By the end of his reign, his transformation from feeble and unwilling actor to figurehead is complete. As his wife and son do battle against the Yorkist forces, the Lancastrian monarch is sent far from the fray, to sit alone on a molehill. There, he quietly gives his fate up to God and dreams about the peasant’s life, oblivious to the thousands of commoners nearby who march to death in his name.
The Dutch production makes clever use of the stage, setting it up like a war room that could almost be located within the kings’ own minds. It also hangs a large screen over the proceedings, and employs lots of handheld cameras, to capture offstage goings-on and unusual vantage points, with decidedly mixed results. When the mega-screen shows us Machiavellian machinations in the corridors of power, or displays the dastardly Richard’s secret regicides, it’s an effective complement. When it is used for silly one-off jokes—say, to film Henry VI milling around with a herd of, yes, sheep during the king’s most intense speech—it’s a distraction that undercuts the real marrow of the play. And when it turns into a war radar, hanging over an empty set as Henry V shouts a truncated version of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) from backstage, it’s a huge fumble that makes you want to sneak away to the bathroom to watch Kenneth Branagh’s version on YouTube.
But the play shines when it gives its magnificent actors the space to do what they do best. One of the most entrancing scenes involves no special effects, no Vice-y camera shots or woolly herds. It’s just Henry V and the French princess Catherine de Valois—whom Harry and Shakespeare rakishly call “Kate”—sitting at a breakfast table as the king tries to woo her. Ramsey Nasr lets his Henry shift from a proud and triumphant conqueror into a regular guy who’s still a little tongue-tied around the ladies. (It’s amusing to hear Henry belittle his looks in this love-speech, for Nasr resembles a young Branagh; the real Henry may have suffered from scars on his face, where a battle arrow struck him as a teen.) When Catherine giggles at Henry’s nervous ramblings, we know she’s a goner and we’re instantly shipping them. The stage sparkles with their sheer presence.
Compare this to Richard III’s ominous seduction of the grieving Lady Anne (in a nice touch, she’s played by the same actress who portrays Catherine, the excellent Hélène Devos). Richard has just helped kill her father and her husband and he is going to use Anne and then discard her. But Richard is a first-rate actor (as is Hans Kesting) and the wolf comes across like a lovestruck lamb. It’s a dark mirror of Harry and Kate’s love scene, wherein Henry earnestly promises Catherine that his devotion will remain loyal and true despite the passage of time. Meanwhile Richard is pledging undying love to a woman he’s already planning to murder.
Where Henry wants to wed Catherine to bring peace between their nations, Richard wants to marry Anne to further his own civil war. And so we have moved from a ruler who sees himself as a servant to his country’s greatness—one who wants every Englishman to feel that greatness in himself, too—to a king whose country exists only to serve his wounded ego and his devouring ambition. Richard wants to feel powerful, something he never got to feel as a misshapen youngest son. Yet even when he’s all alone, he’s imprisoned by self-loathing, telling himself that he’s not half the man his rivals were. He knows that others see him as a monster—and while he’s going to punish them and make them pay for their disdain, he’s also internalized their hatred. It’s a psychological void that can never be filled, no matter how high he climbs, no matter how many people he kills.
When a ruler is driven by his warped insecurities, the entire nation suffers—and soon Richard has destroyed not only his own family, but his country’s tenuous stability.
Richard is the master of #Nothingmatters and when he says he’s a lover of peace and your best ally, you better run fast in the opposite direction. By the play’s end, we are very far from King Harry’s glorious reign and England smolders in the shadow of a chaotic sociopath. Van Hove’s production (and Shakespeare’s plays) are the ultimate study in leadership, coming just before Election Day. Coincidence? Perhaps not.
“Kings of War” runs through Nov 6 at BAM.