Tuesday 8 July 2014

Once More Unto the Breach: Bell Shakespeare's Henry V Review

The marvellous thing about Shakespeare is that once you know one of his plays well, you can keep seeing it over and over.

And the reason that never gets stale is that each company which tackles his work will interpret it in a different way. Thus the familiar - the text of Macbeth, for example - becomes new and stimulating as it's revealed once more on stage.

Thus it is with Bell Shakespeare's new production of Henry V. This isn't the first time Australia's premier Shakespeare company has interpreted the story of warlike Harry and his victory at Agincourt.

In fact the very first Bell Shakespeare production we saw after moving to Melbourne was Bell's 1999 version of the play, set in the trenches of World War I (and you can see Narrelle's review of the production by clicking here).

Photo by Michele Mossop

This time, the setting has been moved to World War II. Rather than the field of battle, however, we're looking at a room just beneath street level, scattered with broken bookshelves and piles of reference books.

The young cast is playing school students, accompanied by a middle-aged teacher. As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on the street outside, causing loud explosions and flashes of light, we watch these students present Shakespeare's history plays to pass the time.

Key snatches of Richard II and Henry IV are presented, cleverly adding background, then finally we arrive at our play. This preliminary opening feels something like the "Previously on..." announcements at the start of TV shows, but also acclimatises us to the play-within-a-play setup.

Photo by Michele Mossop

And what a wonderful setup it is. By liberating this historical play from its sole role of relating a historical narrative, all manner of flexibility is created. As it's a production by a random bunch of students sheltering from the Blitz, fascinating use can be made of the "found objects" in their below-ground room.

Bookshelves are shifted into different configurations to represent boats, walls or trenches; the room's blackboard is enlisted to enliven the long speech about Salic Law at the beginning; and piles of books are used as seating and to imitate dinner plates.

Michael Sheasby as Henry V. Photo by Michele Mossop.

It's also natural for actors to take on different roles as the story progresses: switching between English and French characters, for example. And space is created for female actors to play male roles in this very masculine play, a necessity given the limited number of students present to take on the parts.

There's also room for unexpected developments, something you don't anticipate when seeing a well-known Shakespeare play.

When a German pilot suddenly appears through the students' door at the end of the first act, dragging his parachute behind him, the production is elevated from make-believe into something much darker; a development played out in full in the second act.

Michael Sheasby as Henry V and Darcy Brown as Le Fer. Photo by Michele Mossop.

This is an impressive and stimulating vision of Henry V, with a solid ensemble cast who tackle the complex staging with assurance. It's also that most unusual thing in the world of Shakespeare: a production that surprises.

Henry V runs to 12 July 2014 at the Arts Centre Melbourne; find details and make bookings by clicking here. For more about the Bell Shakespeare Company, click here.

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