Henry V (Bell Shakespeare)
Mackay Entertainment Centre
“… may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” the chorus asks in the prologue of “Henry V”. Although it may not be the wooden O of the Globe Theatre, when it comes to Bell Shakespeare’s production, the answer is most definitely yes.
The show is set in a school bomb shelter in 1940s London, where students are huddled, being given lessons in Shakespeare to distract from the Blitz outside. With initial mention of others from the hollow crown of history plays, “Richard II” and “Henry IV”, school teacher (Kieth Agius) serves as the chorus and ensures some context for the story to follow so that when he then distributes copies of “Henry V”, the students embrace its recitation with gusto.
It is a busy set, with its 10 person ensemble and an endless supply of school-room items to be inventively reinterpreted as play props. Bookshelves become beds, boats and benches in a French tavern, in some precise and inventive staging. Lighting is equally impressive, largely naturalistic yet cozy to give comfort to the claustrophobic surrounds. And within the ‘little room confining mighty men’, there is some lovely movement around the stage as the ensemble works together to create wonderful stage pictures, giving a tableaux feel that only adds to the memorable aesthetics.
To have most cast members assuming multiple roles adds a clear energy. Only a football-ready Michael Sheasby, who plays King Henry, keeps with the one role for the duration of the show. And he creates a sincere and honest Henry, more likeable than gallant, focussing on comradery rather than bravery or patriarchy in his memorable Band of Brothers Battle of Agincourt speech. The stylised, percussion-backed battle of Agincourt, when Henry leads his English into memorable David and Goliath victory against the French, is a definite highlight which drives the piece forward, however, overall, the work seems to shy away any real examination of the brutality of war. Rather, there is a great deal of levity, with Bard bawdiness, sexual suggestions and two very funny scenes in which French princess Katharine (Eloise Winestock), affianced to Henry in a political deal to help reconcile the two nations, attempts to learn English and then later when she is haphazardly wooed by Henry, despite their limited familiarity with each other’s native language. This lightness ensures plenty of laughs but also increases the impact of the grave final sections of the play.
Bell Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is an epic show, but it is a joyous interpretation of an aggressively masculine play. Jumping between classroom characters and those within the play proper could generate a barrier to understanding to those not familiar with the Shakespearean text, but it also creates the production’s greatest interest in its showcasing of theatre’s power to transform. With its lively, novel take on the tale, this “Henry V” certainly succeeds in bringing one of the Bard’s most sombre plays to life.