Band of brothers: Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V

Synonymous with British patriotism, Shakespeare’s Henry V is a play full of contradictions and ambiguities, powerful rhetoric and hollow promises, and is the concluding statement in an epic double-tetralogy of ‘History’ plays. Written in 1599, it came at a time when English theatres were rife with war dramas celebrating England’s success on the battlefield and ocean. On one hand, Henry V plays to the audience hungry for another war play – a “tribute to English courage, underdog spirit and a blessing of its current exploit in Ireland” – while simultaneously undermining these nationalistic associations, with “acts of cruelty we struggle to forgive… and an epilogue that makes the whole jolly rumble seem pointless in the first place.” Damien Ryan’s production of Henry V for Bell Shakespeare, on its last leg of a six-month national tour, plays with these ideas and more and gives us a harrowing piece of theatre about war, sacrifice and leadership which stands head, shoulders and torso above the rest.

Inspired by a true story – for fifty-seven nights in 1941, a group of boys performed plays in air-raid shelters as droves of German bombers rent the night with their falling fury and tore their city up by the roots – Ryan’s production is robust, heady, emotionally-charged and exhilarating, yet also deeply confronting theatre. It catches you up in its verve and rhetoric, and then cuts out your heart with its unpalatable horrors, and it is all the stronger for it. Set within a double meta-theatrical frame – a group of students caught in the midst of the Blitz sitting “upon the ground, [telling] sad stories of the death of kings”, begin to act out Shakespeare’s Henry V; as the air raids close in around them like so too does the story, until they – like us – are so far inside the story that any jolt out of it is startling, obtrusive and highly effective. “In their claustrophobic world, young Harry’s long dark night of the soul becomes theirs,” as Ryan writes in the program.
Recalling earlier Bell Shakespeare productions such as Lee Lewis’ pitch-perfect Twelfth Night in 2010, Ryan’s Henry V is charged with a rip-roaring sense of adventure, youthfulness, and play-fullness. As urged by the Chorus, Ryan and his cast and crew, as “ciphers to this great accompt, on [our] imaginary forces work,” for it is our “thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass. [Prologue.]
And, by Jove, what a result! As in Belvoir’s bedroom-bound Peter Pan, Anna Gardiner’s crumbling ‘O’ set of a bombed-out classroom calls for little more than bookcases and chairs to become everything from boats, castle walls and muddied earth, to taverns, battlefields and royal courts; in one instance at Harfleur, a castled wall is created from two bookcases and a ladder, and the result in a few simple moments is more moving than anything the Les Misérables juggernaut could dream of. Inch by inch, the war outside enters the fray and brings the reality of the situation crashing home time and again. Gardiner’s costumes are also a rhapsody of invention – based around school uniforms, different characters are created through the wearing of scarves and cardigans, berets and football jerseys; armour is created from newspaper, cricket pads and life-jackets; everything can be something else, and nothing is ever just one thing. Rulers, croquet mallets, cricket bats and scissors become swords, a machine gun is created from the blade of a ceiling fan and a scarf, and a horse is created out of, well, a vaulting horse – “I will not change my horse with any that treads but on four pasterns.” [III.7] Sian James-Holland’s lighting is rich, visceral and emotional, while Steve Francis’ sound design is as rich and incredible as his underscore is understated.
Ryan’s first masterstroke is to create a prologue to Shakespeare’s play, fashioned out of selections from Richard II and both parts of Henry IV. Played with a seamless sense of play-acting and seriousness, they create a fluid introduction to the world we find ourselves in in Henry V. Highlighted – fragmented – by the war intruding from outside, the shift into the world of the play – where the school children are no longer children but rather Harry, Pistol, Nym, Katherine, the Dauphin and Fluellen – is seamless, subtle; near-total. The makeshift, homespun ‘make-it-ourselves’ attitude is still there in bucket loads, and even though you know it’s only nine or ten actors, the way they create drama, effect, and moments of harrowing beauty are completely breathtaking.
Ryan’s cast are all incredible, transforming from character to character with ease, skill, dexterity and total believability. As Henry, Michael Sheasby has the requisite crowd-rousing charisma in spades, but he too has learnt from his father that “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Sheasby’s Henry does not make decisions lightly; his actions after the siege of Harfleur shock him as much as his men and the French, so too do his actions with the three traitors, the hanging of Bardolph, and the killing of the French prisoners. He is a leader who knows the time and place for spirit-rousing and for cold-hearted pragmatism, and it is refreshing to see a character who is just as complex and troubled by his actions as we are; his dark night of the soul – his Gethsemane moment – is ours.
Keith Agius, as the teacher-cum-Chorus, is a cardigan-clad chronicler of history who, in Ryan’s words, “works hard to mythologise war” while he – like us – is troubled by the stark contrast of the reality in the ensuing scenes. His speech outlining, for the benefits of the students (and us), the details of Sallic law, is brilliantly presented, loosened from its prose shackles and lobbed into the very mouths of a school teacher, complete with interruptions from students and all. His Falstaff, however brief, is a delight, like a memory of John Bell’s performance related decades later, to grandchildren who have heard the story thousands of times before.
There is something humbling about Ryan’s ensemble, about the way that none of them are more or less important than another, that not even Harry outshines Nym, MacMorris or Le Fer, Scroop or Montjoy. There is something immensely touching about the scenes between Darcy Brown’s dressing-gown wearing Bardolph, Matthew Backer’s beanie-clad geeky Nym and Damien Strouthos’ B-movie hero-esque Pistol, the way they bicker and argue and tease and taunt each other, but deep down they are the remnants, along with Mistress Quickly and old Falstaff, of Harry’s old companions at the Boar’s Head, and nothing in the world is going to separate them. Drew Livingston’s Fluellen as a Welsh philosopher and thinker is scene-stealing, and his musical arrangements of songs are intensely moving, recalling moments in War Horse and Henry 4. Brown’s Le Fer, too, is memorable, not least for his intrusion into their “cockpit” immediately before interval as a downed pilot, and for his subsequent death at Henry’s hand post-Agincourt. The three women in the cast – Eloise Winestock, Danielle King, and Ildiko Susany – are each fantastic, and more than hold their own against the men. Winestock’s MacMorris is an Irish firebrand, while her Katherine is passionate and determined not to go gently into the good night as Henry’s war-bride and condition of surrender; her final scene with Henry is both painfully funny as well as incredibly distressing, and it is beautifully played by Winestock and Sheasby. Danielle King, as Mistress Quickly, Alice, Exeter and Williams brings a quiet dignity and resilience to her roles, as well as a warmth and tenderness which is so often missing in plays such as this. As various Constables, Governors and lords, Ildiko Susany brings a fieriness to her performance which is thrilling to watch, and delivers many a line with a snarl which you wouldn’t like to cross on a dark night.
It is a phenomenal piece of theatre, and does not feel for a moment like the result of a four-and-a-half month tour. It is fresh, lively, and packs an emotional punch, and seems as timely a production as ever. Recalling moments from Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners, along with tales of everyday heroics from every international conflict in the past one-hundred years, Ryan’s – Shakespeare’s – Henry V is neither  pro- nor anti- war, but about war, and it is not afraid to go to the dark places that war unleashes. From the downed bomber Le Fer, to the dead and wounded at Harfleur and Agincourt; the killing of the traitors, the execution of the prisoners, and the hanging of Bardloph, Ryan is not afraid to show the events which other productions might cut. He is not afraid to show the blood and the gore and the brutality with which mankind acts when pushed to their limits, nor does he shy away from the extraordinary gestures of compassion, community and selflessness which we are all capable of even in the darkest and longest of nights. His battle of Agincourt is a fantasia for bodies, percussion and sound effects, a visceral and deceptively beautiful instance of stage-craft, rhythmic, percussive and fluid; his juxtaposition of Agincourt, 1415, and World War Two, c. 1940, is incredibly moving and shows just how far we have not come in five or six hundred years.
As the Western world bands together to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, perhaps what we need is not another piece banging us over the head with the Gallipoli myth of nationhood, nor the indignant declaration of ‘experiencing the ANZAC spirit’ (albeit from the safety of a heavily mediated twenty-first century perspective), but a piece like this, this production, to remind us that each and every war, every international conflict, is essentially the same on a very human scale. While it is itself a piece of nationalistic propaganda on the surface, Shakespeare’s Henry V plays fast and loose with the historical record in so far as it works for him dramatically. He is not interested in presenting accurate history, but rather a dramatic story of mankind in – and at – war, and how they are affected by it, how they behave in it. “He is x-raying a present and inevitably predicting a future where the action will be war, but the argument will always be justification.” Shakespeare’s words are, for Ryan, like gunpowder, and the King literally seems to talk his way into and out of every situation, for better or worse. As we are caught up in Harry’s fervour and rousing speeches, in the daring-do of his men against impossible odds, as we feel the lump form in our throat, Ryan is constantly asking us how susceptible are we really to rhetoric and persuasion?
Henry V is not an easy play to swallow, but Ryan’s production certainly makes it visually and emotionally – theatrically – incredible. As Ryan says, “for all the waves of patriotic fervour and rhetoric the play swims in, [Shakespeare] also lets it drown in its own tide.” Ultimately unfolding on an intensely personal and human scale, Ryan’s production tears the stage up with the kind of panache needed to make these plays as irrevocably immediate and pertinent as they were four-hundred-odd years ago. Even though we have international bodies, treaties and agreements in place to (potentially) safe-guard against wholesale brutality on this scale, “armed conflict is still how we sacrifice our young. A nation’s youth are never the cause, [nor] even privy to the political machinations that lead to war, but they are, and have forever been, the ones given the weapons and sent over the edge… When we fight, we fight bigger and more brutally than any that came before us… We can sit in judgment of Henry’s bloodlust but he would sit in wonder at ours.”

Theatre playlist: 68. The Half-Killed, Dario Marianelli

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