15 June 2014

"Henry V" - Bell Shakespeare (Review)

| John Lombard
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“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.

When: 14-28 June
Time: 7:30pm
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
Price: Adult price: $75 / Concession (ID required): $65
Tickets: https://www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au/

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Holden Caulfield4:39 pm 16 Jun 14

I’m going to see it next week. We’re very luck to get Bell Shakespeare here in Canberra, I think, so I try not to miss out.

John Lombard2:48 pm 16 Jun 14

Another view from the premiere night performance: It totally didn’t work for me (an English major who loves Shakespeare). The setting, while really clever and well done, detracted a lot. The whole affectation of watching a bunch of young people in WWII London perform a Shakespeare play just seemed to aggressively reinforce the idea that you were watching a bunch a high school kids put on a play. What should have been the spine-chilling ‘Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!!!’ speech just seemed ludicrous when spoken by someone in a classroom bunker wearing short pants and football socks.

I don’t think the show will work for everyone. Like I say in the review, the setting doesn’t completely work, but for me the benefits outweighed the costs. Not everyone will have the same experience.

I do disagree with you about the “once more into the breach” speech though. For me it was one of the best moments of the play. The students are performing the play when the siren sounds and the bombs start to fall. Everyone breaks character and scrambles to hide — except for the student playing Henry, who moves around the room performing the speech to give courage to the other students. Little by little he pulls them back into the play — the students stand firm against the Blitz just as Henry’s soldiers stand firm in a desperate battle.

Part of the magic of theatre is that more than other mediums it asks us to engage our imaginations to make the action real. The text of Henry V directly asks us to do this (and in fact even the film adaptations preserve the Chorus’ exhortations to picture what the stage can’t supply). It won’t be for everyone but I think this production is true to that aspect of the text.

patrick_keogh2:45 pm 16 Jun 14

For my two cents’ worth:

I also saw the opening night performance and I enjoyed it immensely. I am no English major, not even a corporal, but I’m familiar enough with the text that I always felt that I knew who was talking, the king or a schoolboy. I agree that the movement of the props was somewhat distracting, especially since Shakespeare implores his audience at the beginning of the play to use their imaginations to “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”.

Notwithstanding that, the setting in WWII further elaborates the pro-war and anti-war dialectic of the play, and draws strong parallels between the nationalistic fervor of the play and the voice of Churchill in the background. An ambitious production it certainly is but I felt rewarded into some new insights into the text, made possible by some excellent acting.

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