‘Henry V’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by July 24, 2014

‘Henry V’, by William Shakespeare, has been adapted for the Bell Shakespeare’s Company by director Damien Ryan and is based around the true tale of school children in a bunker during the blitz. This contemporary version is being presented by the Perth Theatre Trust, for five nights only, celebrating the sixth hundredth anniversary of Henry becoming King.

This first class interpretation can be seen at the Heath Ledger Theatre, in the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, 174 – 176 William Street, Northbridge.

I am pleased to say that this production is travelling around WA, taking quality entertainment to the often forgotten regions. It has already been to Albany, with Geraldton and Mandurah next.

The 160-minute performances at the Heath Ledger Theatre commence nightly at 7.30, running until Saturday 26th July. There is one matinee at 2.15 pm on the Saturday.

The Captioned Performance is Thursday, with the Audio Described Performance at the Saturday matinee.

The scene is a basement classroom during the London Blitz. Anna Gardiner’s design is illusory and unpretentious, whilst jaw-droppingly versatile.

 

        It is St Crispin’s Day, 1940. As the bombs fall outside, the elderly teacher (Keith Agius) is finishing a lesson on ‘Richard II’ and ‘Henry IV’. With enthusiasm he introduces the children to ‘Henry V’ and Salian Law (written in Latin in the 8th century to govern inheritance in most of Europe) that contained such Acts as ‘no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman; but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex.’

      As the students read the story of war out loud, the situation becomes real. The teacher, with a cushion stuffed up his cardigan, become Falstaff. The students start enacting the play that they are studying, only to find that the war zone they are in blends remarkably with Henry’s life centuries earlier. The senior student (Michael Sheasby) dons a rugby jumper and becomes King Harry – Henry V’s ‘pet name’.

      Guided by the teacher and the school nurse (Danielle King), the students become totally embroiled in the play. Patriotic Henry, due to the strong church influence is filled with indecision. Then, because of the despicable treatment of his so called aristocratic friends, the Earl of Gloucester (Damien Strouthos) and the Earl of Salisbury (Gabriel Fancourt) who fill him with self-doubt, he has them executed.

      Welsh born Harry, Prince of Wales, wishes to marry the Princess Catherine of France (Eloise Winestock), and her father – in order to beat the Salian law – is keen to pay a dowry; but on his terms. When Harry receives a present of tennis balls from the French royalty, he realises that this is a dig at his age and vigour, so to prove them wrong Harry decides to fight it out. He sails his army across to France, landing in Harfleur.

      Seasick and generally incapacitated, Henry’s army is diminished and suffering badly as it stumbles towards Agincourt, but Henry’s oratory carries his ‘Brothers in Arms’ (soldiers) onwards. They are decimated, but against all odds, still win the day. After the battle, the French Duke of Orléans(Drew Livingston) was found on the battlefield, so weighed down by his armour that he could not escape.

      The Dauphin (Matthew Backer), Catherine’s mother (Ildiko Susany) and Alice, her lady in waiting give advice to the bride-to-be on English terminology. Catherine hears the words ‘foot’ and ‘gown’, and is appalled, declaring that they sound very like the French words ‘foutre’ and ‘con’. The marriage takes place and all is well for the time being.

      Henry died in France about 7 years later, aged 35.

 

With Bell Shakespeare, one expects quality and a novel outlook in every production. Director and script adaptor, Damien Ryan (assisted by Susanna Dowling), has certainly given us that. The audience soon became part of the school, genuinely experiencing and suffering, the heart-wrenching horrors going on outside. The morals of war, the pure heartbreak and waste of life are laid bare being as relevant today as they were then. There are some very poignant moments.

The two eras are skilfully blended, with famous speeches such as ‘Once more unto the breach …’ are quoted next to a radio broadcast by Churchill (dialect coach Jess Chambers). The long bow archers are fighting at Agincourt, then seconds later operating the submachine guns of today.

The ‘heavier’ scenes are broken up by brief melodies (composer Drew Livingston) sung beautifully in madrigal by the whole cast.

With today’s computer generation on the TV and cinema screens, we have become accustomed, even blasé at seeing miracles take place; but even so, the lighting (Sian James-Holland) and sound (composer and soundscape designer, Steve Francis) design team unite to give us numerous memorable and inspired moments in the theatre. Almost every minute, the schoolroom furniture and fittings are transformed into castle battlements, battlefield, or the English Channel etc., all are stunningly effective. The set changes were slick, complex and carried out by the cast. Their movement director (Scott Witt) and the designer must have spent many mind-blowing hours together to create the correct effect, and for it to morph in a couple of seconds. The costumes changes were clever, with simple everyday items being used to confirm the character being portrayed (Renata Beslik).

Shakespeare’s historical tales can often be dry and heavy on the eyelids. This script, while almost true to the original 16th century play (there are odd occasions when an obscure words may be used, and the teacher gives a brief aside to explain the meaning), is very long and therefore one of Shakespeare’s least dramatized plays. However it has been most skilfully adapted and sprinkled with humour; it is truly gripping, inspiring and adrenaline-charged. The action and energy displayed by the whole cast was quite unique in the theatre.

You will become so involved that when you set off for home, you will feel that you, personally, have won the war.

An amazing interpretation, absolutely terrific.