The power of Shakespeare’s history plays

Kings of War_1920x1080 Shakespeare productions come and go but Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of Kings of War, surpasses everything I have ever seen to date featuring the Bard’s words.

The Dutch company’s triumphant return to the Adelaide Festival with this production that conflates Shakespeare’s five history plays – Henry V, Henry VI (Parts I, II and III) and Richard III, clearly illustrates how the themes of power, greed and war are still so resonant in the 21st century.

I had missed TG Amsterdam’s previous visit with Roman Tragedies in the 2014 Adelaide Festival but as with that production, Ivo van Hove has combined a thematic series of Shakespeare’s works that through his translation provides a new respect for these great plays.

It is a production that is both complex and simple at the same time.  The main stage setting of a modern war room, counterpoints to a behind the scenes warren of white corridors which through live video are relayed back to the audience on a large screen above centre stage. Through these stark settings along with the interplay of technology, scenographer Jan Versweyvel has cleverly projected us into a world of intrigue and murder. It provides a sense of watching the TV news until you realise that in fact we have gone beyond the main story and are for once privy to the backstory.

The Shakespeare history plays, set during the last stages of The Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses in the 1400s have long been regarded as part of Tudor propaganda, written to firm up the claims of the Tudor dynasty to the English throne. Whether such claims are true they nevertheless 500 years later still powerfully depict how propaganda and cynicism shapes power, priviledge and rule.

However Kings of War isn’t all intense and seriousness, van Hove’s pared down script and the stellar cast masterfully portray comedy and irony. One of the highlights is the interchange between Ramsey Nasr as Henry V and Hélène Devis as Catherine of Valois when the former tries to overcome a language barrier to woo her. There is also the nod to the current political climate with Hans Kesting’s Richard III’s imaginary telephone conversations to Trump, Hitler and Stalin/Putin. Kesting as Richard III and Eelco Smits as the tragic and peace loving Henry VI are the standout performances although this ensemble cast are on point all the way through.

In addition to the use of technology, the story is also amplified by the use of music with brass instruments creating a sense of pomp and ceremony and the tension and darkness that lurks all the way through, while countertenor Steve Dugardin’s beautiful voice transports us back to the 1400s. Another clever way of illustrating how the themes of propaganda, power, politics and greed are indeed timeless.

While I walked into the Festival Theatre wondering if I could cope with 4.5 hours of Shakespeare in Dutch (with English subtitles), I walked out mesmerised. This is indeed theatre at its very best.

Kings of War is a must see. Through this work Ivo van Hove has created a beautiful prayer for peace.

Kings of War is being presented at the Festival Theatre until March 13. For further information or to book visit


About crossbordertales

A former journalist and frustrated author currently working in media and communications based in Adelaide, South Australia. This site is a collection of my writing, the people I have met and photos that have come from living and working in both South Australia and South West Victoria a joy. I hope you enjoy these cross border tales.
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