‘Henry V’ was published by William Shakespeare around 1600. This play is the fourth and final part of Shakespeare’s tetralogy. The initial three plays being Richard II, Henry IV – Part 1 and Henry IV – Part 2. The character Henry V was first seen in Henry IV, where he appeared as a tearaway, almost feral, prince. Shakespeare actually wrote, and staged his Henry VI trilogy, before the earlier historical tetralogy.
Shakespeare sourced most of the factual details for these plays from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles.
Sadly, few theatre companies, professional or community, are willing to risk poor houses, but thankfully here in WA there is a 25-year old, not-for-profit, community theatre group Blak Yak who place the production of high-quality theatre foremost. Having no set base, Blak Yak takes their productions all over Perth.
President Lorna Mackie and her dedicated Vice President, Sherryl Spencer have a nurturing attitude, and believe that Blak Yak should be a stepping stone for theatre for writers, performers, directors, technicians and any underdogs.
In the 1944, Laurence Olivier film, Henry’s invasion of France was staged with the witty French scenes enacted as comedy; as was this play. However, Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film was more of an observation of the gruesome horrors, distorted ethics, and personal cost of war – with no humour.
The three and a half hour performances (including half an hour interval) are in the Shenton Park Community Centre, 240 Onslow Road in Shenton Park. Curtain up is at 7.30 pm every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until Saturday 27th October. Please do not be put off by the length of the performance, it is gripping, educational and at times hilarious – a must see! In the past I have found some 40-minute shows to be infinitely more tiresome to watch.
The scenes are: The south coast of England during the Hundred Years’ War.
Harfleur – that is part of Le Havre on the French coast.
The time is 1415 in Agincourt (now called Azincourt), a small town in France about 40 kms south of Calais (on the English Channel), near Honfleur.
The set: as for the typical Elizabethan stage, it lacked scenery.
The actors sit on wooden chairs on the stage, awaiting their part. Most of the action takes place ‘in the round’ on the auditorium floor, with the audience seated on three sides. Paul Treasure sourced the properties. The Stage Manager, Ellie Vance, was even required on stage twice during the performance.
The cast photography and the superb programme cover photo were by courtesy of Michael McAllen.
The colour and tone of the lighting matched the various situations and action, the fine design and smooth operation were by Alex Coutts-Smith.
This review contains spoilers: – but it is intended to help the uninitiated.
In the Prologue, a narrator – the Chorus (Sherryl Spencer) – addresses the audience, apologising for the simplicity of the theatre, and urges them to use their ‘imaginary forces’.
At the Battle of Crécy, 70-years earlier, Edward the Black Prince had captured northern France for England and Wales. Now, young King Henry V (Declan Waters) has just assumed the throne, and to regain the admiration of his people he has given up his uninhabited youth and decided to continue to lay claim on Edward’s parts of France.
The Archbishop of Canterbury (Bonnie Rae Bruce) and Bishop of Ely (Sarah Thillagaratnam) discuss Henry, as they are worried about his trouble making and the future. However, Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Exeter (Patrick Downes) assures them he and Henry’s brother, the Duke of Bedford (Solonje Burns) will look after Henry.
On hearing of Harry’s (as Henry is often called) ambitions, Louis, Duke of Guyenne, France’s Dauphin and heir to the throne (Mark Thompson) sends Henry, via his Constable of France (Ben Small), an insulting gift of tennis balls. Furious, Henry decides to invade France, so gathers his troops. After the death of Henry’s closest friend, Falstaff, Falstaff’s page (Stacey Broomhead) joins Harry’s army. Desperate for soldiers, Harry will take almost anyone, even common criminals like Bardolph (Fiona Johnson), Pistol (André Victor) and Nym (Alan Gill).
As he sets sail for France, Harry learns that three traitors are working for the French. The traitors, the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop and Sir Thomas Grey were ‘walk on parts’ acted by the audience. (They were played by Oliver, Jarrod and Gordon, who are hoping for a Finley’s ‘ensemble award’). They traitors are executed. The army cross the English Channel and conquer French port of Harfleur. Conscripts, Nym and Bardolph are caught looting, and Henry orders that they be hanged. Henry’s forces are so depleted that he decides not to go on to Paris Henry’s army are from all parts of Britain, and includes Capt. Fluellen – a Welshman (James Hagan), Capt. Gower – an Englishman (William Everett-Knight) and Irishman, Captain MacMorris (Vee McGuire).
On arriving at Agincourt, the English discover they are outnumbered by the French five to one.
The night before the battle, King Henry disguises himself as a common soldier and talks to soldiers in his camp. When he is by himself, thinks of his responsibilities and prays to God. Next day, it is St Crispin’s Day, and despite his doubts, Henry gives a rousing speech “Once more unto the breach, dear friends ….” to motivate his soldiers. Incredibly, thanks to the longbows, the English win the battle and the proud French surrender.
Several years later, the English and French negotiate peace with the Treaty of Troyes. Henry tries to woo the French speaking, Katharine of Valois (Jess Lally) daughter of the King of France (Ann Speicher). Meanwhile, Katherine is struggling to learn English, being taught by her lady-in-waiting, Alice (Fiona Forster). Katherine and Harry’s marriage will unite the two kingdoms. In time, Henry’s son will therefore become the King of France, As the play closes, Chorus reappears and informs us that due to poor management, Henry’s heirs lost France, and ‘made his England bleed’.
Penny Ramsell’s costumes were quite simple; with the cast all being barefooted, Henry wore a muslin shirt, the boys had cloth caps, the bishops wore coloured pallia, and many of the Earls dressed in crested tabards. Simple, but worked wonderfully well.
What can one say about the director, Paul Treasure? Let us start with inventive and highly talented. His assistant director, Ben Small, has obviously been a huge support. To learn such a massive script, and most of the actors had several parts – all with very different personalities and accents – would be beyond many experienced actors, and yet their dialogue flowed, word perfect, from one to another without hesitation. In the 210 minutes, there was not a single fluff, nor hint of uncertainty.
Often with long plays, as the performance progresses, a cast will show signs of under-rehearsal, tire, lose focus, become tongue-tied and slacken their pace. This show showed none of these faults. The power just continued unabated. The audience were held riveted.
With Shakespeare’s works, and this was the whole work unmodified, the audience can easily become confused with his obsolete expressions, in jokes and double-entendres; however, everyone in this cast used their full body language, and facial expression to explain the meaning of every word. Occasionally this can appear like overacting, but the director had the cast demonstrating a precise and natural amount of expression.
With a massive cast, it is rare to find such perfect chemistry and so much energy. There were countless magnificent performances. James showed us why he is so respected as a speech tutor, and Jess amazed us with her immaculate French accent. Many congratulations to everyone, some were beginners, others from ‘The Who is Who of WA actors’, but there were no extras – just stars.
Finally but not least, Declan as Henry was extra-ordinary. He showed us a powerful, authoritative regal leader, a loving husband, and a clown learning French; all delivered with faultless diction. He gave us his all!
This is a fabulous play that is rarely presented. It has everything from passion to murder. Highly recommended.