Henry V

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, October 23

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

It is 1940. The date is clearly written on the blackboard in a basement room of a London school where a cardigan-wearing teacher (Keith Agius), some of his pupils and the school nurse (Danielle King) take shelter as German bombs rain down outside.

To distract the students from the air raid, the teacher hands out play scripts and an improvised performance takes place. Brief scenes from Richard II and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 act as a prologue and then we are into Henry V, a play about war.

It’s an inspired device by director Damien Ryan, which doesn’t just frame Shakespeare’s play but runs parallel throughout the multi-layered production. We never forget that this is Henry V as performed by terrified young people during wartime.

Now and again the stories intersect in moments of enormous power – one of them deeply shocking, another incredibly poignant.

Directing for Bell Shakespeare, Ryan proves yet again what an exciting director of Shakespeare he is. Henry V is a dense play yet he brings a customary clarity, energy and modern edge to it.

Ryan was inspired by real life accounts he read of a Boy’s Club, which put on plays and cabarets to raise the spirits of people in London air raid shelters during the Blitz.

The terrific set by Anna Gardiner gives the cast bookcases, books, blankets, a bucket, newspaper crowns and armour, among various other props, which they use with thrilling invention.

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

In a play in which Shakespeare calls for the audience to use their imagination on an empty stage, Ryan gets us to do the same but with a plethora of props. Full of surprises, the staging is quite brilliant. It looks improvised, with the actors moving the furniture around at breakneck speed for different scenes, but it’s highly detailed and precisely choreographed. Full credit to movement director Scott Witt who worked with Ryan.

Ryan has gathered a superb ensemble of 10 actors: Keith Agius, Danielle King, Michael Sheasby, Matthew Backer, Drew Livingston, Damien Strouthos, Gabriel Fancourt, Eloise Winestock, Darcy Brown and Ildiko Susany.

Sheasby plays Henry V with the charisma of the captain of the school rugby team. Everyone else plays multiple roles and yet it is always clear who is who and what is happening. Agius makes a wonderful Falstaff (with cushion up his cardigan) and also plays the Chorus, and Winestock is very funny as the feisty, French Princess Katherine, but each and every one of the actors plays their numerous parts with élan.

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

The sound by Steve Francis, moving vocal compositions by actor Drew Livingston and lighting by Sian James-Holland all contribute magnificently.

Ryan balances the valour and heroism of Henry – who has matured from the callow, irresponsible youth in Henry IV, who hung out in taverns with the reprobate Falstaff, to inspiring leader of his underdog “band of brothers” – with a powerful portrayal of the rank brutality, ugliness and futility of war.

This is one of the most exciting, moving pieces of theatre I’ve seen in Sydney this year. Don’t miss it.

Henry V runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until November 16. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 26

 

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Pinocchio; The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Sydney Opera House is presenting two children’s shows for the school holidays: Windmill Theatre’s Pinocchio and CDP Theatre Producers’ The Incredible Book Eating Boy. And with one end of the western foyer converted to a play area, it’s a lively place for families to be.

Pinocchio

Drama Theatre, April 13

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O'Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O’Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Acclaimed Adelaide company Windmill Theatre, which makes adventurous shows for children, is in Sydney with its 2012 musical production of Pinocchio, presented by the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Theatre Company.

Based on Carlo Collodi’s book about the wooden boy who longs to become real, director Rosemary Myers and writer Julianne O’Brien have created a version that combines a dark fairytale feel with a fun modern edge.

It begins unexpectedly with a blue-haired girl crashing her motorbike into the tree from which Pinocchio will be carved (an underdeveloped take on the blue fairy, who we don’t see again until the second act).

Then we’re into familiar territory with the tale of the naughty, easily led Pinocchio who is lured away from his maker/father the lonely toymaker Geppetto by the evil Stromboli. After a series of frightening adventures, Pinocchio returns home to Geppetto with love in his heart.

With one section set in the reality TV-like Stromboliland, Windmill’s production is more of a cautionary tale about greed and the lure of celebrity, while raising questions about what is real, rather than about simply telling the truth.

It’s cleverly staged around a large, flexible tree trunk on a revolving stage (designed by Jonathon Oxlade) onto which images are projected. The most charming effects, however, are the simpler theatrical ones – the way Geppeto carves Pinocchio, the way Pinocchio’s nose grows.

There are excellent performances across the board. Nathan O’Keefe uses his lanky frame brilliantly as a larky, willful Pinocchio, Alirio Zavarce is touching as the soft-hearted, clown-like Geppetto, Paul Capsis is a deliciously wicked Stromboli, Jude Henshall and Luke Joslin are very funny as roving wannabes Kitty Poo and Foxy, Danielle Catanzariti is suitably ethereal as Blue Girl and Oxlade is delightfully whimsical as the cricket (for which he uses a puppet).

Pinocchio runs around two hours including interval. For all its colourful treatment, it’s a fairly dark show (as is Collodi’s original story) and younger children could be frightened. It’s recommended for ages 7+.

Jethro Woodward’s songs have an energetic rock vibe but I’m not sure they are pitched at children and some of the humour didn’t land with youngsters around me. Others clearly loved it, however, and the show got a rousing response at the end.

Pinocchio runs until May 4. Bookings: sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 20

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Playhouse Theatre, April 13

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

For the littlies (aged 3+) the Opera House is presenting CDP Theatre Producers’ stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ best-selling picture book The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

Henry loves books – well, eating them anyway. The more he eats, the smarter he gets and so his appetite for the printed word grows and grows. But that many books are hard to digest. When he starts to feel ill and begins muddling up all the information he has consumed, he has to stop. Eventually, a sad Henry picks up one of his half-eaten books and begins to read it and falls in love with books afresh.

Writer Maryam Master fleshes out the story with an opening nightmare and more about Henry’s family and cat, most of which works well though the extended cat poo joke feels overdone and gratuitous – in fact, it made me feel a bit sick. By the time Henry began regurgitating books, I was feeling almost as queasy as him.

Directed by Frank Newman, the production is beautifully staged. Andrea Espinoza’s lovely set and costumes have the look of a picture book while cleverly incorporating books into every aspect of the stage design.

The cast of three – Gabriel Fancourt as Henry with Madeleine Jones and Jo Turner playing several roles – are all very good, creating characters the young audience can relate to.

The message that it’s better to read books than chow down on them is a quirky way to inspire children. The production would benefit from a little more dramatic magic at the end when Henry finally discovers the joy of reading to underline how exciting books can be. As it is, he just smiles, so it’s the images of eating and vomiting books that we remember.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy runs until April 27. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777