Review: Henry V (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeareVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 21 – Nov 15, 2014
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Michael Sheasby, Matthew Backer, Drew Livingston, Damien Strouthos, Gabriel Fancourt, Eloise Winestock, Danielle King, Darcy Brown, Keith Agius, Ildiko Susany
Images by Michele Mossop

Theatre review
As the years pass, we become increasingly accustom to war being a fact of life. Wartime is no longer a set of specific and exceptional circumstances, especially with the proliferation of mass media and the normalisation of conflict as a topic of daily interest. Shakespeare’s Henry V includes the ambiguities and tensions between tragedy and heroism, but four centuries on, we seem no longer able to tell a story like this without letting casualties take centre stage.

Damien Ryan’s vision certainly reflects contemporary attitudes on the essential destructiveness of war. The injured and the dead are not obliterated from our sight, but are left critically present on stage to abate any hint of glory that might surface. The use of symbols and the visual lavishness of Ryan’s work is fiercely thoughtful, almost omnipresent. Space is explored to its creative limits, with the astonishingly dynamic use of bodies, sets and props to convey emotions and concepts. Ryan’s brand of theatre is captivating and exhilarating, but also undeniably sensitive and intelligent. His Henry V is complex but accessible, innovative but unpretentious. It aims to be a theatre for all, catering to aficionados, students and everyone else, encompassing every age and background. Shakespeare’s language is challenging for many, and the director works thoroughly to bring elucidation, although detractors are unlikely to have a change of heart with this text, which is probably one of Shakespeare’s more obscure pieces.

The production is visually beautiful, with accomplished and adventurous work from designers on all fronts. Anna Gardiner’s intricate set gives the stage an intimacy and provides performers with extensive possibilities for inventiveness. Gardiner’s costumes are not extravagant but accurately and astutely conceived, consistently effective in each character transformation and evolution. Sian James-Holland’s lighting design is one of the show’s main features. Her work is ambitious and powerful, at times conveying the plot more completely than other more tangible elements can manage. Also outstanding are music and sound designer Steve Francis’ achievements in his very specific control over atmospherics, and vocal composer Drew Livingston’s many charming and surprising songs accompanying the script.

Clearly, the performances are not the only stars of the show, but this is an undeniably excellent ensemble of actors. The chemistry they have found with each other, and in every scene, is exemplary. There is an athleticism to their creation, assisted by movement director Scott Witt, that is often breathtaking and marvelous to behold. The constant variation in tone and mood that they manufacture gives the production an extraordinarily textured feel. Keith Agius plays the more mature roles and is memorable for the depth of meaning he is able to bring to his lines. It is the gravity and an intensity that he puts into speeches that sets him apart. Matthew Backer shines with a distinct sense of humour that follows his assured presence, and his singing voice is quite sublime. The most vibrant actor will always leave an impression, and on this occasion, it is Damien Strouthos who wins us over with his agile, flamboyant and impossibly energetic approach.

It is clear that Shakespeare is revered internationally, but the universality of his writing is arguable. As societies become more aware of ethnic, gender and other differences in experience and background, it becomes less likely that any artist can claim to be relevant to everyone, but theatre is in a unique position of sheer proximity where it has the potential to move and touch, in a visceral manner. Shakespeare’s words might not always make sense, but what it gives birth to, is often blisteringly remarkable.