I must really not know my way around the Australian theatre scene because other than the state theatre companies, the only other theatre company that I know of (and have regularly seen productions) is the Bell Shakespeare Company (Bell). However, a few people that I have spoken with in my literary circles seem to have a very low opinion of Bell. I suspect it may be because I have not had the luxury of regularly traveling to London or New York to see other productions (though I did get the opportunity of seeing the Globe’s production of Dr Faustus and a couple of plays by the National Theatre Company, though they were recordings that I watched at a cinema here in Melbourne). I guess the reason that I have been a regular attendee at Bell’s productions over the last couple of years is because not only did they produce Shakespearean plays that I had not seen (such as Henry IV), but they also did a couple of plays by French playwrights (Moliere and Racine).
What I have noticed is that Bell productions try to present Shakespeare in a way that is appreciated by the modern Australian audience (though in a couple of instances, such as with Tartuffe, I felt that they had butchered the play – come on, the ghost of Shakespeare appearing to drag Tartuffe down into hell – seriously guys, you could have done better than that), and in many cases the plays use a modern setting without undermining the original concept (in much the same way that Richard III was produced).
Personally, I like putting Shakespeare into the modern context because not only does it make the plays more accessible to us in the modern world, it also helps us understand that many of the issues in Shakespeare’s time are the same issues that are faced by us today, and the issue that is brought out in Henry V is the nature of war.
The producers, aware of the accessibility problem that many of us have with Shakespeare, decided to set the production in a bunker during the London Blitz. We are not watching a ‘play within a play’ as with other Shakespearian productions (such as Hamlet and Midsummer Nights Dream), but rather we are watching a performance of a performance. We are watching Henry V being played out on stage, yet the stage that we are watching is a bunker, and the props that are being used are those that one would expect to find in a bunker (which is also a classroom). I found that the way the producers used these props was quite clever indeed.
For instance: there are three bookshelves, and they turn these three bookshelves at one stage into a ship, as well as a throne room and a military encampment (though the characters had also managed to get their hands on a parachute at that stage in the play). A cricket bat becomes an axe, and five 30 cm rulers, taped together, becomes King Henry’s sword. What is more interesting is that the setting is not just an invention of the producers, but based on true events that occurred during the blitz (and there are some pictures and videos on that site as well, since me, being an ordinary audience member, couldn’t take any photos or videos during the performance).
It was interesting setting the play, a play about war, during the middle of another, vastly different, war. In fact the Blitz was not just in the background, but it affected the actors as well, with power outages, falling objects, a captured German paratrooper, and even a couple of deaths. To me, it was very cleverly constructed as the scenes within the play were seamlessly merged with the events outside, and the questions that are raised by the characters are also the same questions raised by the actors (should we kill the German prisoner since he has been killing our friends, or should we show him mercy to demonstrate that we hold a higher moral ground than the enemy).
As I have mentioned, though, Henry V lived in a different time and was fighting a different war than was England in the 1940s. The period was a time known as the Hundred Years War, where France and England were locked in an almost endless struggle (and in reality the war extended beyond the 113 years that most historians bracket the hostilities, and even during that time the fighting wasn’t continuous; in many cases it was more of a cold war situation where hostilities would break out on a regular basis). Unlike the blitz, Henry had decided to take the war to France, and much of the action takes place on French soil. Here Henry is the invader, not the invaded, as was the case during the blitz. The play begins with a speech justifying Henry’s actions in France, and the play ends with Henry not only conquering France, but conquering the princess as well. To help put the play in context, this particular production opened with a quick run down of the three previous plays (Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2).
The central point of the play is the Battle of Agnincourt, a battle that turned out to be a complete disaster for the French, simply due to the English’s effective use of the longbow. What effectively happened was that the French, who relied upon their knights and backed them up with crossbowmen, could not get anywhere near the English before the archer rained arrows down upon them. The production’s representation of the battle was quite effective, with a two characters sitting on the bookshelves using a couple of long sticks to represent bows, but then turning them around to imitate a heavy machine gun, which gave us a modern representation of how effective, and destructive, the longbow was back in those days.
One final aspect of this play that I should mention was the almost flawless use of the French language. There are parts of Henry V which are written in French, however one does not need to know French (I don’t) to know what is being said. In one scene we have the princess trying to learn English, and while she speaks only in French, we still understand what she is saying based upon the context in which the French is spoken. We have a similar scene at the end, where Henry is attempting to court the princess, but he doesn’t speak French, and she doesn’t speak English. However, we still know what is going on, once again, based on the context in which the French is spoken. To me, French is one of the most beautiful spoken languages that I know, and to hear it spoken flawlessly (despite the fact that I do not understand it), is a testament to the ability of the actors.
Despite some of the criticism that I have heard about the Bell Shakespeare Company, I have enjoyed a number of their productions that I have seen. I certainly enjoyed this production so much that I travelled to Sydney to see it a second time, and felt that the journey was well worth it. However, while this production will pass away in the same way that many of the other productions disappear, I am sure the play itself, as will the other plays by the Bard, continue to reverberate through our world for decades (or even centuries) to come.