Bravura hides Bard's ambiguity to conflict

Henry V. Picture: Michele Mossop

Bell Shakespeare director Damien Ryan hit on a novel approach to presenting Henry V for the company's latest production.

Ryan discovered that during the London Blitz, a group of schoolboys had sheltered in a bunker as bombs rained down on the city. During the 57 nights in the bunker the boys entertained each other by singing songs and reading from literature.

It was this piece of information that inspired Ryan to create his version of Henry V, one of Shakespeare's most famous plays about war and conflict. His actors play schoolboys who enact the play in the bunker, an approach that dispenses with the need for fancy sets and costuming that represents soldiers at war.

"I remember reading about the boys in the Blitz in a book of wartime stories that my grandmother had," Ryan says. "It seemed the perfect framework for Henry V, and when John Bell suggested that after last year's Henry IV the company should do Henry V, I pitched the idea to him."

In an essay on the production, Ryan says Shakespeare's play is ambiguous about the nature of war. Henry's stirring speeches about courage and the necessity to go to war are in conflict with Shakespeare's own words about the ridiculous justifications for war, the cruelty and corruption that war engenders and the ultimate pointlessness of such conflicts.

Ryan asks: "Was Shakespeare glorifying or condemning war in this play? The Chorus is Henry's greatest ally, even publicist, so is it here that we must assume we have Shakespeare's own voice? Perhaps.

"Our spine tingles at Henry's extraordinary orations on Crispin's Day and outside Harfleur. He seems to earn the glorious titles the Chorus gives him - 'this star of England', 'the mirror of all Christian kings', 'a largesse universal, like the sun', and 'a little touch of Harry in the night'.

"It seems that Shakespeare is giving his audience, his nation's nobility and his censors what they want, a tribute to English courage and underdog spirit . . .

"But Shakespeare, as always, manages to achieve profoundly opposing sensations in the theatre and hides his personal politics from us entirely. The play's courage and bravura lift our spirits and inspire our awe, yet it is riddled with ambiguities, acts of cruelty, and corrupt and ridiculed justifications for the conflict.

"It is a play that is neither pro nor anti-war but about war - its appalling cost and its strange virtues for the human character. It was written, or at least first performed, in 1599, and served a thirst for tales of war in an Elizabethan England that was experiencing the most martial or military decade in its history.

"Shakespeare, throughout his career, was a war poet, and he took up the morality argument strongly in Henry V, providing a troubling ambiguity that has made him more our contemporary than his colleagues."

Henry V is being revived at an apposite moment in Australia's own history as commentators and historians examine the morality of conflicts in our sphere, from the Gallipoli centenary to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which appear far from settled and are even moving towards breaking out again.

It once again shows that Shakespeare's plays continue to have a universal relevance and timelessness.

On the telephone, Ryan elaborates on the play's continuing relevance, in particular its parallels to the war in Iraq.

"In Iraq, the justification for war was the supposed weapons of mass destruction," he says. "In Henry's time there was a similar justification dreamt up by the two clergymen with whom the play starts.

"These two religious men have discovered a dossier about the lineage of the French king which was laughable in its ridiculousness. But they are able to use the dossier to convince the king to invade France. In other words, their reasoning is that to stop decades of war in his own country, the king should go to war against another sovereign nation."

Henry V is perhaps more famous these days for its film versions than stage productions, most specifically Laurence Olivier's 1944 film in which he played the title role and Kenneth Branagh's more recent film.

"Olivier's version created a happy-go-lucky Henry who goes gloriously to war but it cut out all the darker corners and edges," Ryan says. "Branagh made war a much uglier event but he cut out the ambiguities of Shakespeare as well."

As Henry V begins its national tour with a season in Canberra against the international backdrop of renewed war in the Middle East, the moral ambiguities about the justification and glorification of war are sure to ignite further contemporary debate.