Bell Shakespeare’s production of Henry V was put together by a very clever team of problem-solvers. Directed by Damien Ryan and designed by Anna Gardiner, these two work in tandem to bring entire battlefields and courts into a space equivalent in size to either a small classroom or a very large broom closet. Much of their work in this production is, in one word, ingenious.
From the opening vignettes of harried students sheltering themselves from the shelling outside their bunker during the London Blitz of 1941, it is a apparent we are in for some tightly choreographed and expertly produced action. The next hour rolls out like a blitz in itself, with actors making use of nearly every single object and piece of furniture in this little room to put on this play within a play. At lightening speed, shelving gets moved around to signify different locations, jackets are held up on broomsticks to signify executed traitors, chairs are upturned, and not once did anyone suffer a stubbed toe or pinched finger.
Ryan uses this conceit to move freely through the bounds of this play; reality begins to meld with the world of Henry V, so that eventually by the second half, the students have become immersed in the story. It’s easy to play with reality using the device, and in this way Ryan is able to find solutions to problems of time, location and personage. Because he’s condensed the cast down to ten players, everyone assumes multiple roles, and even when characters die off, they come back into the story in other ways. If it sounds convoluted on paper, it’s perfectly clear in the staging.
The cast is even and consistent down the line, delivering outstanding, intricate ensemble work throughout the piece. Once the play worked its way into to the heart of the matter at hand, that being the contrast between the glories and the horrors of war, we somewhat expectedly lost a bit of the imaginative playfulness that was present throughout the first half. This was easily regained in the charming scenes with Princess Katherine (Eloise Winestock), Alice (Danielle King) and Henry (Michael Sheasby), where language and physical comedy intersect hilariously.
Another important element of any Shakespeare is the music that he embeds in his works, and here once again, the company relishes the opportunity to bring his songs to life. They’re not merely punctuations or afterthoughts to the action, they become action in themselves, and very much part of the storytelling. It works to rouse and rally the troops, the troupe and the audience, and the inclusion of "I Vow to Thee, My Country" (Sir Cecil Spring Rice’s patriotic poem set to a section of Gustav Holst’s Jupiter) sung by the cast is a nice sentiment befitting of the tone of the piece.
Henry V draws no conclusions about the nature of warfare, but it does explore its many facets. Henry does some questionable things in his pursuit of power, but he still manages to keep us on his side, and indeed we end up succumbing to his charms just like Katherine does. Another superb rendition by Bell Shakespeare, on par with the best from around the globe.
Bell Shakespeare presents
by William Shakespeare
Director Damien Ryan
Venue: State Theatre Centre of Western Australia
Dates: 23 – 26 July 2014
Touring Nationally from 13 June – 15 November