Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V is a play within a play where the play is staged within a classroom during an air raid. Inspired by a true story about a group of 40 boys stuck in a bunker for 57 consecutive days who formed a “Boy’s Club.” Each week they would rehearse and perform a new play to raise the spirits of the other people in the bunker. It’s unknown if Henry V was performed by the “Boy’s Club”, but given its political theme, it’s easy to imagine such a performance was regaled with all the gusto Bell Shakespeare delivers with this version.
Directed by Artistic Director Damien Ryan, who has worked for Bell Shakespeare for 13 years, the high energy of the performance moves the prose along at an accelerated pace, and thankfully so because the performance plays for 2 hours and 40 minutes. There’s plenty of action and quips to lighten the language while providing a sense of urgency and unpredictability enforced by the very nature of war.
Shakespearean aficionados may already be familiar with the tale but for the uninitiated Henry V is full of treachery, conspiracy and heroism. Already deemed an unfit leader and ridiculed for his youth and wild ways, King Henry leads his men poorly equipped into war with France. Despite the odds, England is victorious and Henry wins the hand of Princess Katherine of France. Played by Michael Sheasby, who you may recognise from other Shakespearean performances like Romeo and Juliet and TV roles Home and Away and A Place to Call Home, he leads the cast of 10 (many who play multiple roles) from the classroom to the battlefield with boyish conviction. He is also referred to as Prince Harry and interestingly, not unlike the brother of the current Prince of Wales.
Set in a classroom, each scene is crafted from the materials found in any typical school during World War II: a basketball becomes a cannon ball, the paper from an exercise book is origamied into Katherine’s gown and the bookcases become a ship, and then the trenches of the battlefield. As bombs fall from the sky, the actors seamlessly create each scene during the performance cleverly orchestrated by designer Anna Gardiner.
Despite the belief that Shakespeare is aimed at high-brow literati, it was always intended for the masses. It may have been written over 400 years ago, but Henry V is timeless and still very much relevant given we live in a time of uncertainty; and no more so than in the war torn countries of the Middle East. Perhaps as I write this there is a similar group performing shows of their own quite literally underground.
Henry V plays in Perth at the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia until 26 July before heading to Geraldton, Mandurah and continuing with an extensive Australia-wide tour.