“In little room confining mighty men” – Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Henry V (helmed by Damien Ryan as director) presents us with a classroom of energetic students performing the play to each other and challenges us to engage our imaginations to make the play come to life. As the Chorus (presented here as the classroom’s devoted teacher) tells us early on, “’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.”
And between inventive staging, exceptional acting (with performers playing multiple roles) and the poetry of William Shakespeare, we are actually able to make this leap. Pencils become swords, folded newspapers become battle armour and a pair of overturned bookcases become a fleet of warships adrift on a rocky sea. Henry wears a crown of newspaper but it feels more real than many more gilded props because the conviction of the production invests it with weight and truth. It is to the play’s credit that we are able to accept these characters simultaneously as children reading a play and also as great lords deciding the fate of nations.
We are able to make this leap of imagination because of the production’s greatest strength, its setting in a London classroom during the tumult of the blitz. The setting is at once framing sequence and a story in its own right. When Henry gives his “once more unto the breach” speech he is a King rallying his troops in battle, but he is also a student using the powerful words of Shakespeare to invest his friends with courage while bombs rain down outside. Michael Sheasby’s Henry begins as a boy reading a part but as his performance gives the others the strength to endure the dark nights of the blitz he moves from inhabiting the role to being consumed by it, absorbing the character’s ruthlessness as well as its nobility. The play’s greatest and most powerful moments come not from the text of Henry V itself, but rather from how the action in Henry V interacts with the situation of the students performing it.
But at times the production’s greatest strength also becomes its greatest weakness. With the play operating on two levels that constantly (and wittily) interact it is not always clear whether the people on stage are the students themselves or the characters they’re playing or some combination of both. The play tries to be a grand performance of Shakespeare as well as a play about children trying to survive a harrowing ordeal and does not always achieve this balance. In addition, the use of some natural Australian accents jars with the period London setting and at these points it becomes a play within a play within a play. It is at these points in particular that the magic buckles and the show sags under the weight of its own complexity.
The staging is also spectacular with the classroom ransacked for props and set until finally the room is transformed into the battlefield of Agincourt. However the whirlwind of invention (which is genuinely impressive) is disorienting to the point where it interferes with the telling of the story. There is simply too much going on, especially in the first act. The second act focuses more on telling the story rather than showing off its own creativity and the production is stronger for it.
However the production’s flaws are the cost of its innate ambition, and for the most part that ambition is realised. The blitz settings enables some amazing moments where reality intrudes on and energises the text of Henry V. Here the death of Falstaff is tragic and one of the play’s most intense moments comes when the young King (who is also a boy playing a role) agonises over whether to kill a prisoner of war. Purists who want a straightforward production of Henry V have many options for more conventional interpretations. Those that want to see a production of Henry V that takes risks and is more than the sum of its parts will enjoy a thrilling night that showcases the potential and power of theatre.