Theatre review

On stage: The cast in Henry V. The play is directed by Damien Ryan.

On stage: The cast in Henry V. The play is directed by Damien Ryan. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Henry V by William Shakespeare.
Directed by Damien Ryan. Bell Shakespeare.
The Playhouse, The Canberra Theatre Centre. June 13 - 28.
Tickets: Canberra Theatre website or 6275 2700 

A few years ago Bell Shakespeare put a nicely elegiac Henry V into the trenches of World War I.

But this current Henry feels like a far more exciting reworking

Close call: The cast in Henry V seek shelter.

Close call: The cast in Henry V seek shelter. Photo: Jamila Toderas

The setting seems to be a battered school bomb shelter in 1940s' London, where students are given Shakespeare to distract them from what is going on outside. This becomes much more than a setting.  The resulting tensions and the physicality of the performances deeply support the play’s meanings.

Enough of Richard II and Henry IV is slipped into the opening to explain just why young king Henry (Michael Sheasby), heir to a father whose claim to the throne was questionable and fresh from a youth misspent with the likes of Sir John Falstaff (Keith Agius), might be keen to fight in France.

Agius is also the cardiganed teacher briskly hauling the shell shocked students into classroom play reading mode, sorting an argument with a smart one by pushing her to look up the information and putting the Salic Law argument for Henry’s right to the throne of France up on the chalk board with maps and diagrams. There are reasons why he will later be more distant but his performance here, and as the Chorus, quickly and delightfully establishes the schoolroom ethos working under pressure.

Rehearsal: Cast in Henry V, 
from left: Eloise Winestock, as Princess Katherine and Michael Sheasby as King Henry V.

Rehearsal: Cast in Henry V, from left: Eloise Winestock, as Princess Katherine and Michael Sheasby as King Henry V. Photo: Jamila Toderas

After that the energy of it all never flags. The classroom reading becomes a performance, with the furniture, cupboards, shelving and a precarious ladder flung dangerously around Anna Gardiner’s atmospherically curved and confined set by the students, to become whatever the action demands; a court, a battlement, a battlefield.

A parade of characters blossoms out of this. Henry’s old low-life associates Pistol  (Damien Strouthos)and Bardolph (Darcy Brown) and Mistress Quickly (Danielle King) are swiftly sketched. It’s the Boy (Gabriel Fancourt) who in a direct speech to the audience powerfully reminds about the wide gap between Falstaffian morality and that which the king will now enforce against friend as well as those who plot against him.

The flippantly shallow Dauphin of Matthew Backer shows what a prince should not be. Princess Katherine (Eloise Winestock) struggles to learn English with a ferocity that continues into the swift wooing of an arranged marriage with a Henry who clearly does not quite expect independence. Welsh captain Fluellen (Drew Livingston) shows a lovely calm logic in the face of battlefield chaos. And Ildiko Susany, as the fearful governor of surrendering Harfleur, is a reminder of war’s ferocity against the innocent.

At the centre is Sheasby’s young team captain Henry, in football gear, often anxious but always striving for an honesty in his leadership that takes the playing of the role beyond the easy rhetoric of heroic speeches.

There’s something very heartfelt about all of the performances and Sian James-Holland’s lighting picks out some marvellous faces.

Expect hymns and parachutes and gas masks and ghosts and the dead who never leave the stage. I could quarrel with the blackboard, which should surely be black not green, but Damien Ryan’s production is unmissable theatre.