Henry V – Bell Shakespeare
Henry V meets the Dead Poets Society in Damien Ryan's inspired take on a classic story of war.
Bell Shakespeare’s latest production of Henry V could well be renamed 'Once More Unto the Beaches'. Well, that would be silly, but in Damien Ryan’s production, set in an underground bomb shelter during the London Blitz in 1941, you can almost hear Churchill’s famous 'We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches' speech echoing through the space as Michael Sheasby delivers the famous 'Once more unto the breach' monologue.
Ryan’s production has been touring the country since last June, and this talented ensemble has the high-energy, intricate choreography of the piece down pat. The World War II setting was inspired by a true story that Ryan came across of a Vicar who set up a makeshift theatre in a bunker during the air raids.
Ryan places Henry V as a play within a play acted out by a group of students, led by the gregarious Vicar (Keith Agius), in the style of Dead Poets Society. They leap on tables, don newspaper crowns, grip swords fashioned from rulers, upturn bookcases to form ramparts and generally have a ripsnorter of a time. The ensemble seems to be genuinely under Agius’s spell, as he leads them masterfully through the setup of Richard II and Henry IV and then into the play proper.
Designer Anna Gardiner has moulded the Opera House Playhouse stage into a cocoon of shelter against the bombs, with exposed pipes and a thin line of shattered windows near the ceiling. A blackboard at the back wall is used to explain the denser details of history and three bookshelves divested of their books transform into beds, tables and mountains.
It’s an original premise and an interesting one that asks a lot of concentration of the audience. When you learn about Shakespeare in high school, someone invariably tries to convince you that really this dense language is comprehensible; you just need to grasp the rhythm. And they’d be right. But in this production the flow of the play is interrupted so often with Brechtian interludes that it’s more like a jaunty jig through history than a gripping narrative.
The fast-paced jostling between explanation and action left me more dazed than enlightened. The cost of the riotousness is that when someone dies, it’s hard to know who they are, let alone how to feel about them.
The production’s most interesting motif is the loss of innocence, in the arrival of a wounded German soldier played by Darcy Brown. He sits silently with blood running down his bandaged face at the back of the room as chaos reigns around him. This specter of death in the second half offers the stillness that the production is aching for. Indeed, Brown’s focus and presence is remarkable throughout.
The cast is adept and captivating, and have achieved something remarkable in fitting two plays into less than three hours. Make sure you have your faculties about you before stepping into this breach.
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