A Henry for the ages

A Henry for the ages

The greatest challenge for producers of Shakespeare is to convince the public that it is still worth seeing the Bard's plays, says Bell Shakespeare performer Drew Livingston.

"People go, 'Oh, it's Shakespeare, I don't want to see it'," says Livingston, who plays several characters and has composed the songs for the latest touring production of Henry V.

"Shakespeare is as relevant today as it was 400 years ago and as it will be in 400 years time," Livingston says.

Issues of aggression, betrayal, spin and propaganda, atrocities against prisoners, the maltreatment of women and the futility of war would always blight the world, the 2010 WAAPA graduate said.

This production of Henry V, now playing at the State Theatre Centre, solves the accessibility problem by setting the play as a performance by a group of schoolchildren sheltering in a bunker during the London Blitz in 1940.

Rousing speeches and bloody quarrels are enacted in a claustrophobic bomb shelter to a background of air-raid sirens, explosions and smoke.

Assistant director Susanna Dowling says that framing device - based on a true incident - helped unlock the distant story of King Henry V and the battle of Agincourt for a modern audience.

"The story of the Blitz is absolutely still part of our contemporary culture and the way we understand war," Dowling says.

The stirring World War II oratory of Winston Churchill owed a lot to Shakespeare's "once more unto the breach, dear friends" and "we happy few" speeches in Henry V, says.

"This play is about the power of oration, the power of somebody being able to persuade people to do what he needs them to do, whether to inspire them or to shame them. That is what is powerful about Henry as a character. He has got this incredible power of speech and ability to convince people what he is doing and saying is right. That is still the case nowadays. We still believe people when they have that power of conviction and oration."

Director Damien Ryan's contemporary take is inspired by a true story in which for 57 consecutive nights during the Blitz a group of boys rehearsed and performed plays for the other people stuck in the bomb shelter.

Michael Sheasby, who plays Henry, says having the actors play school children who enact the play in the bunker captures the story of the young Henry stepping up to assume responsibility and highlights the themes of loss of innocence that comes with war.

"Performing it through the eyes of children is an enormous way of cementing the impact of war," Sheasby says.

The play's great power is that Henry is an ambivalent character capable of both great heroism and of great atrocities.

Sheasby says he appreciated how the production showed all aspects of the flawed leader and the futility of war.

Henry V is performed at the State Theatre Centre until Saturday before touring to Geraldton on Tuesday and Mandurah next Friday.

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