Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V is delightfully scrappy and relentlessly energetic in the way it uses every available resource to bring a fresh take to one of Shakespeare’s most sombre plays.
Director Damien Ryan sets the play during World War II in an English high school classroom of nine students (three girls and six boys) who are seeking shelter from the bombing on St Crispin’s day. Under the guidance of their teacher (Keith Aigus) they act out Shakespeare’s Henry V to pass the boredom. (The idea apparently came from Ryan reading accounts of students forming theatre clubs during the bombings as a way to pass time.)
The play opens with the teacher furiously writing out the history of Henry V on the chalkboard in a frenzied lesson. The date, October 25, 1940 is scrawled on the board. He hands out copies of Henry V to the students who read the lines self-consciously at first, but ‘reality’ is soon suspended as we are transported to 1415 and the battle of Agencourt as they become more immersed in the characters. Henry’s battle for England slowly becomes theirs. They become enthralled by his patriotism, but eventually his longing for peace.
Bomb sirens are heard and lights flicker intermittently taking us back to 1940 in moments of heightened dramatic effect, but the two stories are so effortlessly interwoven without any changes to the original script, that you have to remind yourself that Shakespeare did not write Henry V as a play-within-a-play.
Michael Sheasby plays King Henry, the only cast member to take on one role, with the other nine cast members playing up to five roles each. Sheasby’s Henry is dynamic; vulnerable and humorous at times, which softens his ruthless military ambitions. Other standouts are Agius (chorus/Archbishop/King of France) who is significantly older than the rest of the youthful cast, but brings an air of authority and assurance as the voice of the chorus.
Danielle King (Mistress Quickly, Exeter/Alice/Williams) is arresting in her role as Mistress Quickly as she seamlessly slides into her different characters. The casting is impressive for its energy and versatility (save for one forgivably bad Scottish accent).
The small touring set, designed by Anna Gardiner, and “improvised’ props and costumes see the classroom effortlessly transform from bunker to battlefields. Bookcases become trenches, ships, beds and buildings; books become pillows and thrones; book pages became armour, crowns and royal garb. The costumes by Renata Beslik are 1940s school uniforms that are dressed up and down with paper and imagination. Scarves and cardigans become capes and army uniforms.
Henry V demands as much from its audience as its cast (the first half runs for 90 minutes alone and 2 hours 40 minutes in total), but Ryan’s direction of his youthful cast pays off flawlessly.