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Henry V meets the London Blitz and brings the house down

Bell Shakespeare’s new production of William Shakespeare’s Henry V – which opened in Canberra on June 14 – interrogates the complexities of war through a unique framing device: its scenes are played out…

The limitations of the theatre become the production’s emotional heart. Michele Mossop

Bell Shakespeare’s new production of William Shakespeare’s Henry V – which opened in Canberra on June 14 – interrogates the complexities of war through a unique framing device: its scenes are played out by schoolchildren taking refuge during another conflict – the second world war.

In this creative production, the English invasion of France and the famous battle of Agincourt are “crammed” into the confines of an unglamourous classroom. There are old wooden bookshelves, a blackboard, piles of books.

Here, director Damien Ryan (founder and artistic director of Sport for Jove) uses a schoolroom as an entry-point into the world of Henry V. It looks much like the context in which many of us first encountered Shakespeare, but this deceptively commonplace setting belies the dynamic and emotionally powerful production that will be contained within this “little room”.

Michele Mossop.

The humble setting toys deliberately with the concerns of the play’s Chorus, which wonders how the grandness of a battle can be represented onstage. How, asks the Chorus doubtingly, can “this wooden O” (a reference to early modern theatres such as the Globe) contain “the vasty fields of France”?

Bell Shakespeare’s production uses the same foil: it asks how a classroom can contain the epic scale of Shakespeare’s play. We are lured into the lower register of the classroom, before we ascend to the imagined heights of Harfleur and Agincourt.

But this is not just a classroom: it’s also a bomb shelter for a group of students during the Luftwaffe Blitz of London in 1940-1941.

The production takes its time in setting up this play-within-a-play framework. Ryan creates the world of London in the 1940s before we even get to Shakespeare’s Henry V. First, the students – led by their charismatic teacher, played with dignity and poignancy by Keith Agius – briefly enact key scenes from the end of Shakespeare’s history plays of Richard II and then Henry IV. This is a fast-paced history lesson, a background on the younger days of Henry V, and also serves to clarify the play-within-a-play structure that guides this production.

By the time the students pick up their copies of Henry V and prepare to begin their performance of the play, we are firmly entrenched in their world. This is aided by the authentic camaraderie of the ensemble cast, with standouts including Danielle King (Mistress Quickly, Exeter, and Alice), Matthew Backer (Dauphin and Nym), and Drew Livingston (Fluellen and the production’s vocals composer, who also leads a haunting rendition of the patriotic British hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country).

There is always the danger of a conceit such as the play-within-a-play going awry: it may be inconsistent, problematic, or simply abandoned. But in Ryan’s immensely capable hands, the play-within-a-play is deeply meaningful, offering a renewed vitality to the play-text.

At every turn, there is a double life to this production; the performance always straddles two worlds, two historical fictions. Sometimes they are so closely overlapped that we cannot even see the join; at other times these worlds are suddenly sprung apart.

An air-raid siren or bomb blast will forcibly remind us that we’re in London of 1941, not the French fields of 1415. The captured French soldier of the original play becomes a German pilot. The fields of Agincourt are created by the billowing material of the German’s parachute. In this way, 20th-century London not only intrudes but shapes the world of Henry V.

This alignment of 1940s London and 15th-century France proves most effective in the deaths that occur throughout. The victims of Agincourt are realised shockingly and effectively in the parallel victims of the London Blitz.

Michael Sheasby as King Henry V and Darcy Brown as Le Fer/Boy. Michele Mossop.

The offstage death of John Falstaff (a lovable rogue and old friend of Henry’s familiar to audiences from his presence in other Shakespeare plays) is parallelled by the death of the teacher/Chorus. This cleverly brings home the importance of Falstaff who, while probably well-known and loved by an early modern spectator, is not nearly as familiar in today’s popular imagination.

The victims of both Agincourt and London linger as ghosts in the black space around the wooden O of the classroom (the set design mirrors the “wooden O” of the Globe theatre with its curved walls and floors). The interweaving of those two threads proves mutually beneficial.

Every moment of this production is meticulously thought-out and precisely executed. There are fast-paced and frequent set changes as the bookshelves and other classroom props are moved ingeniously around to recreate London, Southampton, the voyage across the channel, the French court, the siege at Harfleur, troops on the march, the battle at Agincourt, and the Treaty of Troyes.

Sheets, torches, toy ships and soldiers are used to make silhouettes of the action; the angled bookshelves swaying with imagined waves become a ship; a pommel horse represents the Dauphin’s beloved warhorse. The seamless onstage transitions are also reminders, as the Chorus explains, that the theatre can only do so much, and spectators are called upon to use our imaginations and “piece out” the theatre’s imperfections “with your thoughts”.

But this production never lets its audience linger too long in the world of Henry’s France; we are always reminded that this is a performance by children in their own very real war zone. The set changes perfectly tread the fine line between simultaneously showing us the theatricality and helping us to forget it.

It’s a very precarious balance that is managed flawlessly, partly because, when we see the artifice of Henry V, we may forget that behind this is another layer of theatricality. We see that Henry’s crown is only paper, theatrical artifice made by the London students, but we must look harder to see that the students are just as unreal as Henry’s crown. That’s the beauty of the play-within-a-play and it is Shakespearean metatheatricality at its best.

Michele Mossop

The play complicates any sense of harmony in its closing scenes. Michael Sheasby’s Henry is delightfully warm and funny in his wooing of Princess Katherine (the elegant and versatile Eloise Winestock), although some of the comic potential is lost when Katherine, in a change from the play-text, recites Henry’s threats at the siege of Harfleur back to him. The wooing Henry is confronted by the words of warring Henry, who warned that French infants would be “spitted upon pikes”.

The ending is further disrupted when the students read the Chorus’s epilogue and discover that after this hard-fought victory, England will lose France. There are gasps: “they lost France”. Henry’s face is hypnotic to watch: he is shocked, horrified, crestfallen.

Everything has been for nothing. The students' copies of Henry V are thrown to the floor in disgust.

This production takes the concern expressed by Shakespeare’s Chorus regarding the inadequacy of the stage and reverses it: instead of simply apologising for the homely, domestic, inadequate setting of such an immense tale, Ryan uses the homeliness, the familiarity and domesticity to make his audience feel.

The vulnerabilities and limitations of the theatre become the play’s emotional heart. As the program notes underline, Ryan explicitly connects the children of 1415 with those of the 1940s, as well as the children of 2014 in Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan.

This kind of connection is exactly what we should be doing with Shakespeare.


Henry V by Bell Shakespeare premiered on June 14 in Canberra and will tour Australia until November 15.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Ric Davidson

    Various

    Glad you enjoyed the production, as did I, but I have to quibble with your play within play reference. The play within Henry V cannot logically be Henry V. The only plays within the play are Richard II and Henry IV.
    I also think it is irrelevant to describe the central design concept of a production as a conceit.
    I don't understand what you mean by "the students are just as unreal as Henry’s crown." Henry was a real king, Agincourt was a real battle, WWII was a real war and students really did read plays in cellars during the blitz. Ryan has brought these realities together to illuminate the play in a new rich and wonderful way. Rather than symbolising the unreal, I see the paper crown and paper costumes, newsprint actually, symbolising the magic of theatre, transforming the printed word into the physical reality of performance.
    Kind regards,
    RD

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    1. Claire Hansen

      PhD Candidate, Casual Lecturer & Tutor at University of Sydney

      In reply to Ric Davidson

      Hi Ric,

      Thanks for your comments. I obviously don't disagree with your point that Agincourt and WWII were real battles. That's not my argument. But onstage in Bell's production, we are watching two fictions - Bell is putting on a play about those students in the bomb shelter, and they are putting on a play (several actually - Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V). There are two levels of theatricality - both of which (though based on historical realities) are unreal onstage.

      And yes, I think the paper crown/costumes etc absolutely symbolise the magic of theatre, as you say - this is again tying into the idea of 'piecing out' the play with our imaginations.

      Best,

      Claire

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    2. Ric Davidson

      Various

      In reply to Claire Hansen

      Hi Clare,
      Thanks for your reply and the main thing is that we both think this is a great production.
      However, Bell is not putting on a play "about those students in the bomb shelter" they are putting on Henry V. We've been seeing productions like this at least since the 60's, Michael Kahn directed a Henry V in 1969 for the American Shakespeare Festival set in a playground with an ensemble of young actors in T shirts shooting hoops. To assert that there is a different play to Henry V being performed…

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    3. Claire Hansen

      PhD Candidate, Casual Lecturer & Tutor at University of Sydney

      In reply to Ric Davidson

      Thanks Ric,

      I'm always very happy to defend my views, so no problems at all! I'm just pleased that the production is a) being seen, and b) that people are interested in talking about it.

      I don't at all think that this 'is not Shakespeare', quite the opposite. And I also would never argue that there is a single 'authoritative version' of a Shakespeare play; again, quite the opposite. Neither of these assertions are supported above; the review does not make either of those claims.

      It sounds like…

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    4. Ric Davidson

      Various

      In reply to Claire Hansen

      Hi,
      Well you are still saying there are two plays, there are not, there is one very fine production of Henry V. The parts the students (not the actors) choose and the play they read is Henry V and this is logically consistent with the director's concept of staging the play in a school basement in the blitz. It then transforms seamlessly into the performance of the play. Olivier's Henry V film makes a much more difficult transition from depiction of a stage production, yes, backstage and all, to live action film. I've seen it described as a play within a play also which brings me back to my first point. How can it be a play within a play when it's the same play? You might say that the RSC's ground breaking Midsummer Night's Dream was a play within a play within a circus, or Olivier's Henry V is a film within a play within a film but there's no real point. And that's my point.
      Kind regards and best wishes for your thesis,
      RD

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  2. Margo Saunders

    Public Health Policy Researcher

    Another view: I was there on opening night and cringed throughout the performance. It just totally did not work for me and was just an example of why you shouldn't mess with Shakespeare. The set, while clever, only detracted. The whole affectation of watching a bunch of young people in WWII London perform a Shakespeare play just seemed to constantly reinforce the idea that you were watching a bunch of 1940s students put on a play. What should have been the spine-chilling ‘Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!!!’ speech just seemed ludicrous when spoken by someone in a classroom bunker wearing short pants and football socks. Give me the Olivier version any day.

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    1. Claire Hansen

      PhD Candidate, Casual Lecturer & Tutor at University of Sydney

      In reply to Margo Saunders

      Hi Margo,

      Thanks for your comments. I do understand that these kinds of interpretations can detract from the main play-text. For me, the WWII setting only made the battles and losses more emotionally engaging.

      I personally think Branagh's version is pretty good; although I saw a 2012 production of Henry V at the Globe in London, and the 'Cry God for Harry' speech was so rousing the entire audience joined in and shouted 'England and St George!' back at the actor. It was quite amazing!

      Best,

      Claire

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  3. Mark O'Connor

    Author

    I think your article gets it right Claire. Such framing devices can embarrass, distract, or intrude gratuitous ideology; but this one gets it just right. As you say, "the play-within-a-play is deeply meaningful, offering a renewed vitality to the play-text." It's a superb production.
    I saw its opening night in Canberra, where the audience gave it a round of spontaneous applause at the interval break, something few plays get.
    It is sometimes claimed that drama works best on a blank stage, as in Elizabethan times, with the audience filling in the setting from their imaginations. Yet I always find a blank stage a bit disappointing in a modern rectangular theatre. This production works so well partly because it does gives us a very detailed setting to look at (a schoolroom in a bunker) --- yet a setting whose features, like the blackboard or the gym horse, keep being given new meanings.

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    1. Claire Hansen

      PhD Candidate, Casual Lecturer & Tutor at University of Sydney

      In reply to Mark O'Connor

      Hi Mark,

      Thank you - glad you enjoyed the production. I think a great deal of its level of engagement is also due to the charisma of the ensemble cast - they work incredibly well together and I think that is immensely helpful in gaining the emotional involvement of the audience.

      I know what you mean about a blank stage, and I think you're absolutely right in differentiating between an Elizabethan stage and a modern rectangular theatre, as you say. I think a bare stage inside a modern theatre, which is obviously enclosed, dark, and artificially lit, is very different to a bare stage in an outdoor/open air theatre like the reconstructed Globe (or indeed any outdoor productions). In the latter, the environment (the open air, the visibility of other spectators, noises from outside the theatre) make the space seem very much alive. But a bare stage inside our modern indoor theatres has a very different, more solemn, feel.

      Thanks again,

      Claire

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  4. Liz Wood

    Clinical Risk Management

    Thanks all for your comments and Claire for the article.
    I am taking two 11 year old boys to this as their introduction to Shakespeare, and having read your comments; I'm really looking forward to the play and to their response to it. Sounds like a cracker!
    Cheers,
    Liz

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    1. Claire Hansen

      PhD Candidate, Casual Lecturer & Tutor at University of Sydney

      In reply to Liz Wood

      Thanks Liz,

      That's wonderful - I really hope they enjoy it, I think it would be a great first taste of Shakespeare!

      Best,

      Claire

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