Once more into the breach my friends. This time I’m sitting nervously in the atrium before Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V and it’s brought it to my attention that the run time is a whopping two hours and 45 minutes; I fear that I may once more be in for a slog through that ultimate bugbear of mine, a minimally or poorly-cut Shakespeare.
But oh how wrong I was!
Upon glancing briefly at the program and having my interest sparked by the explanation of the Second World War setting of this history play, I entered the space and the spark fanned to a flame by a lovely and engaging design (Anna Gardiner ). The Fairfax’s amphitheatre stage was well utilised so that the energy of the space flowed into classroom/bunker where we would see Henry V unfold. I sat, ready to go, and with all trepidation banished.
Long, and bloated in parts, it may have been. However director Damien Ryan has crafted an engaging look at this epic. It remained, at the very least, engaging and at times I was so lost in the story and the characters that I forgot just how long I had sat there.
The choice to set the piece in a school classroom during a bomb blitz from the Germans brought a very human element to the young cast’s portrayal of the fictional history. A doddering and caring teacher uses Shakespeare’s histories to help the young men and women of the school escape the horror happening outside and that’s exactly what Henry V becomes for them and audience: escapism.
As the children suck themselves deeper into the comforting and fun fiction of the play, the audience is sucked in with them. The initial jarring feeling of seeing the actors with scripts in hands quickly allows the performers and the director to highlight the moments when the students lose themselves in the piece and this brings the audience deeper into the narrative and its joy. More importantly, that escapism opens the audience up for the shock that comes when the real dangers of the blitz come crashing into the fiction the students have created to protect themselves.
Given that almost the entire cast of characters are young men and women dealing with the horror surrounding them, this production can be seen as a very ‘young’ production of Henry V and on the surface criticisms can be made in regards to this. Henry’s famous “once more unto the breach” speech can be seen as maybe a smidgen “shouty”, but seeing it is being performed by a young man in one of the most terrifying moments of his life, it becomes instead a powerful expression of his fear within the play and of what is happening outside the walls. The student Henry (Michael Sheasby) becomes a rallying point for his classmates in the same way Henry does for his soldiers. His strength becomes his classmates’ strength and as he starts to fear and doubt, we see not just the collapse of the events of the play but also of the fiction in which it has been placed.
In typical Bell style, moving furniture within the set creates spaces like boats, tents and battlegrounds that are not obvious from the original design. They also employ great use of percussive sound created by the actors within the space to assist with the dramatic tension of key moments.
Overall Henry V is a fresh, young and fast-paced take on a play that could easily be forced stay within a more ‘mature’ take or setting. They take the square peg, look at the round hole and shape their play beautifully so that it fits with ease. And its length is easily forgiven thanks to an enjoyable, touching and engaging piece of theatre.