The State Theatre Centre

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The “play within a play” was a concept often used by Shakespeare. Henry V’s director Damien Ryan utilizes this conceit in his reworking of the somber classic. Bell Shakespeare’s latest production is a youthful and energy filled two and a half hours of theatre showcasing some of Australia’s best young actors.

Set during the Blitz in a London schoolhouse, a small group of students are waiting out the German bombing raids, whilst their teacher leads them on a series of readings of classic Shakespeare plays.

Opening into a history lesson, where the backstory of the titular character’s two predecessors (his father Henry IV, and the deposed Richard III) is revealed. This offers those unfamiliar with either English history or previous works by the Bard some understanding of the young king’s motivation.

What starts as a game for the students as a way to pass time during the bombings quickly turns more somber. A nearby explosion triggers a heart attack in their teacher, leaving the students without adult supervision. (Although veteran stage actor Keith Agius continues, unseen to the cast, as the ever-present chorus)

This is quickly followed by the appearance of a downed Luftwaffe pilot, who is captured by the students. When another barrage of bombs kills one of the students, Henry takes his knife, slitting the pilot’s throat, representing Henry’s slaughter of French prisoners.

As the sun rises on St Crispin’s Day morning, the students emerge from their classroom, echoing the conclusion to the play.

 A full production of Henry V has over 40 actors (not including a chorus and incidental characters), yet this production was stripped to a slim nine actors. Although this may seem confusing, the cast utilizes accents and minor costume accessories to show changes of characters.

 Probably the most incredible part of the production is the staging. Utilising nothing more than three bookcases, a ladder and the contents of a classroom, the actors were able to represent ships, battlements, castles, pubs and all the other locations.

 Although not without its problems (some of the dense prose was run together by a few actors), this was a very strong production. Praise should be offered to WAAPA grad Eloise Winestock for her hilarious Katherine (performed in flawless French) and Michael Sheasby as King Henry.


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