Henry V

By William Shakespeare

Bell Shakespeare

4 stars

State Theatre Centre


William Shakespeare wouldn't be shocked by the horror in Ukraine and Gaza. He had seen into the hearts and minds of those who fire the weapons, those who give the orders, those who fall and those who loot, before, and understood them exactly.

His Henry V can easily be seen as glorious procession and a strident hymn of patriotism, the soul of the idol washed clean with noble blood, but there's little sanguineness, and much darkness, behind its flash and colour.

Director Damien Ryan works impressively to strip away Henry's glamour. Setting the play as a performance by students in the temporary schoolroom of a bomb shelter during the London Blitz is a brilliant conceit, bringing its themes of patriotism, idolatry, propaganda and terror into sharp focus.

It also gives a satisfying, and often very funny, way of staging the play's problematic early scenes as the political bishops plot war against France and then persuade the new king (Michael Sheasby) of the legality of his hereditary claim to its throne.

Henry needs little persuading, and soon he's off to cause mayhem across the Channel. The rest is familiar.

What's fascinating, as you watch the king's heroic, psychopathic progress, is how like the man behind the bombs falling on London he is. Ryan ingeniously puts a map of Western Europe on the classroom's blackboard, with lines from Germany to France showing Hitler's 1940 advance. Soon, as the teacher (Keith Agius, in fine, stentorian voice) narrates Henry's story, another set of lines penetrate France, this time in 1415, and from England.

It's an inspired treatment, one of many as events proceed.

There's only one problem that Ryan doesn't solve, and that's Falstaff. That vast repository of perfidy and wisdom is banished by Prince Hal at the end of Henry IV, and Shakespeare is just as cruel, and just as rational. He kills off Falstaff early in Henry V, and doesn't even let him on stage to die. Ryan does, though, albeit only as a motionless shape on a deathbed, and that's a mistake. There's too much of Falstaff and his henchmen, and, for a while, the action becomes overplayed and cluttered.

It's swiftly saved, though, by Princess Katherine (the luminous Eloise Winestock) and her gentlewoman Alice (Danielle King) in their brilliant, filthy, English lesson. Winestock returns as Katherine at the end, in turn alarmed, outraged and coquettish as Henry woos her; it's a wonderful performance.

As are they all. Among them, Matthew Backer's preening Dauphin, Drew Livingston's uber-Welsh Fluellen and King, in all her roles, are especially memorable.

Sheasby masters both Henry's brilliance and sociopathy in a compelling central performance. He gives something of Alex in A Clockwork Orange to Henry but still manages the critical, difficult soliloquy on kingship, nobility, intellect and courage that precedes the more famous St Crispin's Day speech, with clarity and rationality.

There is much ensemble work, gender is largely dispensed with, stage furniture transforms from school desks to battlements to ships in instants, props are found, or made (Anna Gardiner's touring set, made to fit stages from metropolitan theatres to country halls, is all skill and cunning).

It's only been a couple of years since I said Propeller's testosterone-driven Henry V was the best I was ever likely to see. That remains true but there won't be many better, or more interesting, than this.

Henry V ends in Perth on Saturday, July 26, and then plays in Geraldton on July 29 and Mandurah on August 1.

The West Australian

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