Here is a review of Henry V as presented by the Bell Shakespeare Company in Perth last week. It was written by our redoutable president, Frances Dharmalingham.
The imaginative conception of framing the original drama in the context of the Blitz gave us, the audience, layers of meaning and heightened the significance of many incidents in quite extraordinary ways. The performance began with schoolchildren studying Shakespeare’s histories in their classroom literature lessons; soon they began the early exploration of the text, reading their parts not always expertly. Gradually we saw them becoming fine actors as they inhabited their characters and identified with those characters’ experiences; and finally we had the entirely convincing portrayal of Henry and his men during their French campaign.
This is much too facile an account, however. The repeated bombing raids of the Blitz regularly brought the actors and the audience back to the ‘present', so that frequently we were watching a performer as both a schoolboy character and simultaneously a Shakespearean character. There were times when the intensity of a scene enabled the complete ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ — we were with them in France — and other times when again we were back in the classroom watching these youngsters wrestling with the ideas and feelings evoked by the dual influences of the play and the real-life war.
For me, this layering was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the production, but there were so many features to admire at the time and to enjoy in retrospect.
The set was brilliantly devised. Looking at it before the play started, I wondered if it might be rather too small an acting area, but of course it wasn’t: it was the classroom, but imagination allows the action to spill out and beyond it! The broken windows and jagged edges of half-demolished walls evoked many memories of old bomb sites, and the bookcases with their shelves no longer parallel became the versatile basis of any number of props as required. The sound and lighting were spectacular — the absolute aural battering of the bombs and ack-ack guns, the chilling wail of the sirens, and the sudden black-outs powerfully supported the established setting.
The small cast were uniformly fine performers, each, except for Michael Sheasby (understandably) as Henry, playing many parts. They had hardly an opportunity to leave the stage as they shifted scenery between assuming their different roles. It was altogether a great example of true ensemble playing. The set changes were frequent and beautifully organised, as the trusty bookcases and very few other furnishings were tipped and turned and by sheer force of imagination turned into anything required; even, after Harfleur, into the mud and mire of northern France as the troops struggled towards Agincourt. Later, following the unexpected appearance of a downed German airman, clever use was made of his parachute. The actors convincingly suggested the youthfulness of upper secondary school pupils, but were skilled in quickly assuming their many and varied roles within the main script. Their basic school uniforms were very simply modified to suggest improvisation under austerity conditions; the French identified by red and blue scarves, the knights ready for battle with cardboard ‘armour’ round their knees and shoulders. Princess Katherine’s frilled dress for the final scene, apparently created from rows and rows of old exercise book pages, was quite charming and served to underline the end of hostilities.
A makeshift trumpet was used to good effect for formal and martial purposes, and strong drumming strengthened the urgency of war preparations. Led by Drew Livingston, the actors sang well in the opening scene with the church dignitaries and after Agincourt, and especially in the moving finale.
By referring briefly to Richard II and Henry IV, the introductory scene in the classroom gave a useful lead in to the play, and this was cleverly followed up to explain the church’s concerns about money, and the archbishop’s specious reasoning to justify war with France. This is normally a particularly boring scene and is always going to be largely incomprehensible, but by making it a brisk ‘chalk and talk' session the main point was well conveyed, allowing the players to ease into their performance.
|Monarchs to behold the swelling scene. Credit: Michele Mossop|
The order of the scenes was occasionally interestingly re-arranged, and the choruses broken by the episodes to which the words referred – a good way to avoid very long speeches, and maintain the action. There were also some sensible cuts which I’m sure no-one would have minded: the leek in the bonnet episode, and the Act V chorus in particular. An addition was Katherine’s reference to Henry’s threats to the people of Harfleur, as a justifiable way to explore her attitude towards him and to marriage with him.
One of the most memorable moments came as we were yet again returned to the pupils’ present time, with a particularly intense bombing raid, a very near miss in fact, in which one of the boys (who played The Boy) was injured. This led immediately into Henry’s speech: ‘I was not angry since I came to France Until this instant’, referring to the slaughter of the baggage boys. This was an electrifying response, as war and its effects on innocent bystanders became real. I had a little difficulty with the introduction of the German paratrooper, but perhaps he was there to provide the schoolboys with a moment of direct confrontation with ‘the enemy’.
Following the epilogue, spoken by Keith Agius with the same admirable clarity he brought to the choruses, the cast (once again school pupils, having finished their study of the play) sang ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ simply but with stirring feeling. The play reminded me that when literature is made relevant to life it can have profound influence.
This was a strikingly good production. The actors performed with such passion, and between the high points the tension was skilfully lowered with suitable pauses or light and spontaneous comedy. Given that it was the final show of the Perth season, and followed an afternoon matinee, they are all to be heartily congratulated on their never-flagging energy. It was a performance to make me return to the text with pleasure and new insights.