Hackneyed adjectives like ‘new and different’ hardly touch on the reality of this amazing production.
Image by Michelle Mossop.
Henry V is a play that’s often produced, and most people who went through high school in the 20th century would have at least a passing acquaintance with it. Finding a new and different way to present it is quite a challenge.
In this production for the Bell Shakespeare Company, Damien Ryan has taken that challenge. But hackneyed adjectives like ‘new and different’ hardly touch on the reality of this amazing production. How Ryan managed to pull so many disparate ideas together and then present them as a cohesive whole beggars the imagination.
Of course, Ryan had a fabulous cast and a creative team that’s second to none, and his extensive experience must also have stood him in good stead. He has worked on more than a dozen productions of Shakespeare and has his own company, Sport for Jove Theatre. But this production of the Bard’s most popular history must surely surpass in quality anything that has gone before.
First of all, the WWII setting was incredibly effective: air-raid sirens, whistling bombs, explosions galore, all with impressive lighting effects, set the scene even before the acting area was lit and we found ourselves in a classroom. The cast of ten was on stage, and there they remained for the entire performance.
Our anchor man, Keith Agius, turned the chorus into a schoolmaster, who gave his class – and the audience – a quick tour of Shakespeare’s histories from Richard II onward. The words were all lifted from Shakespeare’s works, and the fact that most of them were out of context became a bit of an in-gag for the audience. The students then embarked on their reading of Hal 5 and we were away.
We never quite lost the Blitz classroom setting, but before long the students dropped into their characters to give us a rendition of this favourite that eclipses any other I’ve seen. We watched the characters – especially Harry – grow and change as the play wore on. It’s easy to interpret King Henry V as a bloody warrior who can turn on the charisma as it suits him, but Michael Sheasby did not take us down that path. What we got was a young man who, while determined to grasp what he saw as his rightful inheritance, was sensitive and sufficiently self-aware to understand the horrors of war and to take responsibility for his part in them.
Sheasby was the only actor to play a single character. The remaining thirty-odd were effectively interpreted by the other nine players. Each one was a gem, and all without leaving the stage. If someone had told me about this I would have thought it an impossible feat. Costumes were modified, accents and mannerisms assumed – all within the confines of the tiny set, and if there were any glitches, I did not see them.
After seeing a well-realised production of any kind, one is often in a blue funk for at least 24 hours. My sleep that night was interrupted by flashbacks to the performance – and indeed, it remained in my mind all the next day. But even in my befuddled state, before I left the theatre I sought out John Bell to congratulate him on still another magnificent production.
I babbled platitudes, eventually finding my mouth moving like that of a fish out of water, with no words coming out. I decided to have one more go. The words that came out were these: It’s f**king brilliant.
I hope I didn’t offend Mr Bell, but if you asked me now what I thought of the play, I think those same words would leap to my tongue. Go and see Henry V.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Director: Damien Ryan
Designer: Anna Gardiner
Lighting: Sian James-Holland
Composer and Sound Designer: Steve Francis
Vocals Composer: Drew Livingston
Movement Director: Scott Witt
Dialect and Voice Coach: Jess Chambers
Assistant Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Michael Sheasby, Matthew Backer, Drew Livingston, Damien Strouthos, Gabriel Fancourt, Eloise Winestock, Danielle King, Darcy Brown, Keith Agius, Ildiko Susany
State Theatre of WA, Heath Ledger Theatre
Until July 26
Then tours nationally.