Sunday, June 15, 2014

Henry V by William Shakespeare. Directed by Damien Ryan. Bell Shakespeare. The Playhouse. Canberra Theatre Centre. June 14-28 2014

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Bell Shakespeare's Henry V.                  Photography by Michelle Mossop

Damien Ryan’s production of Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V is inspired. Audience’s familiar with the company’s work will be accustomed to the ingenious interpretations of the Bard that have become Bell Shakespeare’s trademark throughout its long and illustrious history. There is always a risk when a theatre company dares to depart from the accustomed and the conventional. At times it succeeds to dazzling acclaim. At other times it runs the risk of critical condemnation. So it may be for some who visit this production. For me, Ryan’s Henry V belongs to the former. Inspiration seeps through every scene of this ingenious interpretation. Ryan’s directorial concept for Shakespeare’s tale of England’s 15th century warrior king is inspired by the account of boys, closeted in a London bunker during the air raids of World War 2. They would read various plays and then enact them for others, confined within the crowded space. Anna Gardiner’s set depicts a basement classroom in a bomb-damaged building, complete with blackboard, bookshelves and tables with piles of books for chairs.  It is here that Bell Shakespeare’s play within a play is performed. Peggy Lee’s  Why Don’t You Do Right sets the period before the play begins with the clamouring blasts of an air attack above the shattered windows. It is the blast of war that blows in our cheeks to thrust us fully into the drama of Shakespeare’s story.

Ryan’s troupe of ten actors rises to the occasion, powered by the energy demanded of a small ensemble and rising to the challenge of the Chorus’s enticement to fire the imagination. The opening scene establishes the classroom bunker and offers a prelude to the play with excerpts from Richard ll and Henry lV to clearly mark Henry V’s ascent to the throne. With chameleon aplomb, Keith Agius dexterously changes from schoolmaster to pillow-paunched Falstaff before assuming the storyteller Chorus of Shakespeare’s patriotic drama. With the assistance of Scott Witt’s movement direction, Ryan and his cast create a seething, soaring tide of action that drives the very heart of this gripping production. Shakespeare’s exhortation to “suit the word to the action, the action to the word” is carefully observed as the cast play out the war-time performers playing out the characters of Shakespeare’s drama. Bookcases become Falstaff’s deathbed, balustrades, or the boat’s hull, tossing on the Channel. They bear the bodies of the dead and the towers of the castle. Here is the fertile product of improvisational play, searching for and discovering the inspiration to discover inventive staging and offer an audience fresh insight into the nature of war, the quality of loyalty and courage, the danger of patriotic fervour and the futility and waste of man’s inhumanity to man. It is impossible to avoid the powerful and illuminating immediacy of Bell Shakespeare’s production. The company maintains a relentless pace to the action, fulfilling the demands of the Chorus to bring Henry’s tale to life as the young king forsakes his dissolute youth and bears the responsibilities of a monarch. The drama of Steve Francis’s sound design, combined with Sian James-Holland’s dramatic lighting complement Ryan’s volatile stage business in a production that is absorbing, riveting and enlightening. It is a story-teller’s magical art to surprise, to engross and to hold an audience captive through the drama, the comedy, the pathos and the moral tenor of the tale.

For the storytellers of this history, Ryan’s campaign is a challenge as bold as Agincourt. Only Michael Sheasby’s Henry is afforded the actor’s luxury to fully immerse himself within an all-encompassing role. Other members of the company play three or four other roles, as well as occasionally playing out the characters in the bunker.  A young company, they give their all, catching the cameo in their grasp and speaking the speech trippingly upon the tongue. Only Drew Livingston’s Fluellan appears not to have fully found the metre of his Welsh accent. There are some priceless scenes to savour. The minimalist executions of traitors, Cambridge (Gabriel Fancourt), Scroop (Darcy Brown), Grey (Eloise Winestock)and the unfortunate Bardolph (Brown) make a striking impact with their economy of action. The pathos of the death of Davey during the 1940 air raid shocks and reminds us again with such impact of the casualty of any war. There is abundant humour in Matthew Backer’s fey Dauphin as he heaps adoration upon his horse, a gymnasium horse brought in from another part of the school. The scene between Henry and the French Princess, Catherine (charmingly played by Eloise Winestock) is a delightful  display of clumsy wooing and linguistic misunderstanding.

Sheasby’s performance as the “Star of England”, a monarch who claimed France for England and defeated the French against terrible odds at Agincourt in 1421, is the star of this production, surrounded though he is by Bell Shakespeare’s Ensemble of brightly shining lights. Sheasby commands the stage with charisma, stature and the authority of his role. Whether championing his troops to patriotic fervour, praising their virtues, struggling with self doubt, displaying the ruthless  force of veangance and bumbling through young love’s confusion, Sheasby is an actor of shining stature. His command of the rhythm of the drama is pivotal and he rises to it with engaging assurance.

Director Ryan’s campaign is a triumph of originality and reverent observance of text and narrative. Every campaign is bound to suffer casualty, and here it may be the somewhat lacklustre gloss of the war council scenes at the French court or the occasional confusion that can arise with multiple role play and the interpolation of the 1940’s action with the 15th. century history. Agius’s lucidly played Chorus assists audiences on this high octane journey. Whatever ambiguity may colour opinion in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Bell Shakespeare’s production leaves us in no doubt about the futility and waste of war, as does the Chorus’s final condemnation of the consequence of Henry lV’s reign.

On opening night, Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V showed itself to be a star of a production in the ascendancy.

The cast of Henry V. Photography by Michelle Mossop
Michael Sheasby as Henry V. Photography by Michelle Mossop