Shakespeare. The role of this man in shaping the worlds of the English language and dramatic art cannot be understated. Almost every schoolchild in the western world has, at some point or another, studied his work or spent time in his world. The power of his work to affect an audience or reader has not lessened in the almost 400 years since his death.
With this powerful legacy, it can be a daunting challenge for any company to mount a new production of one of his plays. Bell Shakespeare, however, chooses to continually conquer this challenge by putting themselves to the test and making the work real, modern, and accessible. Henry V is their latest accomplishment – a small, clever set, a dynamic, exciting cast, and the words of Shakespeare to tour Australia and bring life to the work of the great man once more.
Henry V is a dramatic recounting of the events leading up to the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It follows the titular character as he navigates and avoids assassination attempts, the crossing of the English channel, the siege at Harfleur, and the eventual historical victory on the field of battle. In this new interpretation by director Damien Ryan, he places the action in the thick of WWII during the London Blitz, with a teacher and his students taking cover in a nearly-underground classroom as bombs fall outside. In the midst of this crisis, the sheltering class re-enact the play from their library, in an effort to boost morale and keep occupied during the long wait. The staging of the play within their classroom becomes slowly more elaborate, until they receive an unwanted visitor – a bailed German pilot – and their carefully built illusion of safety and control is shattered. The script stays true to the bard’s own words, and the echoes of war are felt from the Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth. Through incredible transformations of a simple set and versatile costumes, two stories are successfully told in tandem with incredible precision.
Damien Ryan’s re-setting of the play in another time and place, removing it from its original context was an extreme risk. By nullifying the immediacy of the actions of the characters, the tension and drama could have been robbed, leaving a somewhat dull and exposition-heavy retelling of the classic war. However the new setting is perfect, as the ever-present threat of death from above, reinforced by an incredible and unsettling sound design of Steve Francis, and the realism of the outside world, created beautifully in light by Sian James-Holland, serve as constant reminders of the frailty of humanity. As death occurs in their reality, as well as in the reality of the play, the students are given credible reasons to seek their escape, and the audience are drawn into this world even from the first moment as the house lights cut immediately instead of fade gently, and the theatre is thrown into darkness.
With an incredible ensemble performance, beautiful staging and exemplary technical work, and an insightful, clever re-contextualisation, there are almost no faults with this production. The only minor issue was the inconsistent and slightly unbelievable Welsh accent of Fluellen. While potentially a conscious choice of the satirical role, it had a tendency to be distracting. However this minor flaw was easily overlooked, as the conviction of the ensemble cast enabled the dual stories to affect the audience.
Bell Shakespeare is renowned for creating new meaning and exciting interpretations of the classic works of one of the greatest writers in the English language. With Henry V, they have continued to reinforce this vision and created a touring show to bring their genius to a wide Australian audience.