Monday 25 April 2016

Kings of War at the Barbican, or, Ivo van Hove makes a film

I've seen a good many foreign Shakespeares over the years, mostly at the Edinburgh Festival, and mostly they've been poor (though oddly enough not the last foreign language version of the Henry VI trilogy). Sadly this latest work by the in fashion Ivo van Hove is not an exception.  After the long first half I was just indifferent, by the end of the four and a half hours I was pretty fed up.

Van Hove has amalgamated Henry V, the three Henry VIs and Richard III (plus a bit from Henry IV Part II at the beginning). After sitting through the show I'm still unclear what he was trying to achieve by doing this. His deletions and inclusions can be curious but it is less those textual choices and more the overall effect which is the big problem. This is because van Hove succeeds in the surgical removal of pretty much any sense that there is a kingdom at stake, or that there are more than a handful of people inhabiting it or dying for it. The set consists of one enormous room, behind which are a set of white corridors which we see, interminably and ineffectively, on film. It's an increasingly boring space to look at. I suspect we were supposed to think of modern leaders launching air strikes from their bunkers (some of the visual projections are overt about this) but frankly this is illuminating neither about those modern leaders nor the Shakespearean text, and it isn't in any case followed through in a sufficiently sustained way.

I've mentioned the use of film which is the other great error of this production. Indeed, it reminded me of the terrible National Edward II where the stage was empty for great swathes of the time while off-stage performance was projected onto the walls. If I could ban one thing in theatre these days it would be this. For much of the time in this show action takes places off-stage and is presented via viewscreen to the audience – the effect to me is distancing. A key point of theatre is the presence in front of you of the performers, if I want to watch a film I'll go to the cinema. Even when scenes are allowed to take place on-stage, they are often still being filmed and the performers often have their backs to the audience - again the splitting effect is distracting rather than reinforcing. On the rare occasions when that doesn't happen the screen is still distractingly on – there's a particularly maddening scene leading up to the revelation of Clarence's death in the second half when a cake on a plate (actually located on a table centre stage) is projected on the screen. The reason for that escaped me.

If only the devices had stopped there. Other annoyances include the soundscape – I quite liked the Wagnerian effect of the trombone quartet, but the wandering counter tenor becomes irritating and distracting as does the DJ in his booth who crafts an intrusive accompaniment for the first half of Part Two (it was never clear what these people were doing at these courts). Oh and then there's the metronome which starts its incessant ticking front of stage just as I was breathing a sigh of relief at the departure of the DJ. With the partial exception of the quartet none of this aids in the building up of telling atmosphere. One final thing is the snippets of narrative information conveyed by screen – if you can't get such plot points across without that sort of device then you're failing (also generally speaking it's not effective to project the title of your play either – having bought tickets I think you can assume that we do know what we've come to see).

The best that can be said for the performers stuck in this thing is that they are committed – the tragedy is that most of the time that commitment is undercut by the production – in addition to the faults already identified van Hove shows little capacity for crafting the telling gesture or tension from physical positioning. The finest performance comes from Eelco Smits as Henry VI who was virtually the only one I found truly compelling when filmed. Among various doublings up Aus Greidanus Jr is most effective at differentiating his twin roles of Gloucester and Buckingham and there are some sparky moments from Robert de Hoog's Suffolk and Janni Goslinga's Margareta, though as with so much else that crucial emotional punch was all too rare. Hans Kesting's Richard III has received much praise from others, but I was not impressed. The latter part of his play is turned into a laughable pantomime which dissipates any sense of menace (and as far as I was concerned became completely ludicrous when he galloped round the stage imitating a horse in his final moments – you might be forgiven for not realising he'd been killed) – Jonathan Slinger in the RSC cycle at the Roundhouse was simply in another league.

Some gave this a standing ovation at the end. I was just glad to escape. There is a searing political play in London at the moment: Les Blancs at the National - it was instructive to have seen this the previous day since it gets right virtually everything this gets wrong. This is definitely one to avoid.

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