Bell Shakespeare's Henry V premieres at the Playhouse in Canberra

Director Damien Ryan's first mainstage production for Bell Shakespeare was inspired by a true story. For 57 consecutive nights during the Blitz in 1941, a group of British boys stuck in a bunker started a boys' club. Each week they would rehearse and perform a new play for the others in the shelter. Among the plays were works by Shakespeare and it is quite possible that one of them was Henry V.  The production premieres at the Playhouse on Saturday.

Ryan used the story of the boys in the bunker to frame his production of Henry V, the set evoking both a cramped shelter from the bombing and - in its O shape - William Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in which the play was originally performed.

Michael Sheasby - clad as a schoolboy who rushed from the soccer field to the shelter - plays the young king. The character's journey from dissolute youth to monarch was charted in Henry 4, presented by Bell Shakespeare last year. In Henry V, he faces treachery at home as he plans to attack France and must encourage his demoralised and outnumbered forces. And the young man playing him has to face up to his own and others' fears too, as the action progresses in its cramped space.

 Sheasby said, ''Damien Ryan's concept for the set that he was going for was inspired by lines like,  'In little room confining mighty men'.''

The chorus narrating the play drew attention to the necessity for the playwright and the audience to use their imaginations to conjure up the spectacle as the action unfolded, he said - laying a big responsibility on the actors.

Eloise Winestock, who  plays Princess Catherine of France, said, ''It's our job to create every image, every moment. That set takes a lot of co-operation and very specific choreography.''


She said most of her dialogue was in French, a language she did not speak, which posed an additional challenge.

Her role as Catherine was brief, but Sheasby's as Henry was bigger, a character who can be both inspiring and ruthless.  Sheasby said that now, having explored the play in depth, ''I still have more questions than I do answers and I hope it's going to remain that way''.

He said he was excited to be part of a group that, at every performance ''will be  trying to find the truth in each other and with each other''.

Henry V opened at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, on Friday night and continues until June 28. Bookings: canberraticketing.com.au or 6275 2700.