Zest and immediacy

Bell Shakespeare, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 15.

As Bell nears the end of its long run of Henry V, here’s what I wrote after its premiere in Canberra…

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war.

There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery.

These things are of course explicit in Shakespeare’s text and in others of his history plays. At the end of Henry IV Part II Lancaster predicts that “ere this year expire/ We bear our civil swords and native fire/ As far as France” and Henry V ends with the Chorus reminding us that in the near future Henry VI “lost France and made his England bleed”. But the elan of Henry V’s rhetoric and his stunning success at Agincourt often lead the way in the theatre. The brilliant “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” oratory at the Siege of Harfleur and the magical St Crispin’s day speech – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – are hard to resist.

Ryan does resist, adding prologue of excerpts from Richard II and Henry IV to beef up the point. No matter what the talk of peace there is always conflict, often on the most convoluted of pretexts. It was a joy to see the complicated Salic Law explained by Keith Agius’s Chorus, teacher clad in a knitted cardie and wielding a stick of chalk.

The Chorus has earlier famously called on the audience to use its “imaginary forces” to summon vast fields, large armies, prancing horses and bellicose monarchs. “For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” he says. But Ryan – whose productions for his own company, Sport for Jove, are always marvelously lucid – clearly sees that getting through all that virtually impenetrable Salic Law business would be a mighty slog if we were left to our own devices. The blackboard diagrams are really rather useful.

Apart from Michael Sheasby as Henry, everyone in the terrific 10-strong cast plays multiple characters in the style of a boys’ and girls’ own adventure yarn. Anna Gardiner’s design gives them little more than shelves to become city walls, a tavern, a king’s receiving room and barricades on a battle field and it works wonderfully. Not to mention practical: there’s a huge national tour coming up. The air of improvisation gives the action zest and immediacy and there is none of that dread impression of a production created solely for the purpose of being able to be packed up quickly and thrown in the back of a truck.

Sheasby is a light-voiced Henry who at first sounds like an attractive but unseasoned actor thrown by chance into a part. By the time Henry is skulking around at night eavesdropping on the troops to see what they think of him, and then as he woos the French princess Katharine (played with much wit by Eloise Winestock), Sheasby has blossomed nicely. But his primary role is not Henry, by turns benevolent and blood-thirsty as the political needs dictate, it is a boy playing Henry. The sense of distance between performers and performed is always strong, particularly as from time to time they repeat key points or throw in a stage direction or two to reorient themselves in the text.

Despite the appearance of robust mucking up this is delicate work and it is beautifully choreographed, not just physically but also in the quicksilver changes of mood and beautifully judged musical accompaniment. Steve Francis composed the score and created the sound design; actor Drew Livingston, who was the amusingly dogged Fluellen among other roles, wrote vocal music of grace and beauty.

The inspiration for the setting comes from reports of plays and entertainments being put on in shelters during the Blitz, when war rained down relentlessly on the heads of non-combatants and was greeted with stoic resistance. Ryan uses the imagery potently and at one point deeply shockingly. There’s a lot more going on than plucky Brits outwitting Johnny Foreigner as Ryan seamlessly layers past and present.

This is not a production in which Shakespeare’s language reigns. Henry’s big speeches are dialed down and are just part of the messy flow of war. I think Ryan’s chief point is that the boys in the shelter aren’t yet old enough to be seduced by that “little touch of Harry in the night”, bestowed to bolster courage and commitment on the English soldiers. But the Blitz happened in the early 1940s. Perhaps the following year, or the one after, they’d be old enough to be sent to fight.

Ends in Canberra June 28, followed by an extensive national tour ending in Sydney November 15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.

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