I went in to Antic Disposition’s Henry V with high expectations. Not only was it in a unique and stunning venue – Southwark Cathedral, first stop on the company’s latest UK cathedral tour – but I’d heard amazing things following the production’s earlier performances in 2015 and 2016, and was eager to see if it lived up to its glowing reputation. (Spoiler alert: it totally does.)
In an inspired reframing of Shakespeare’s history as a play within a play, directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero have set the story in a French field hospital during World War 1, where a group of recuperating French and English soldiers, along with two of their nurses, put on a performance of Henry V to cheer themselves up. After a nervy start, they soon ease into their parts so well that both they and we get lost in the story – but reality is never far away, with the unwelcome reminder that there’s a big difference between playing soldiers and actually being one.
While the performance of Henry V is excellent, it’s these additional scenes, along with songs based on the poetry of AE Housman, that really make the production stand out and give it such devastating emotional impact. 500 years separate the two conflicts, but while the two nations may now be allies instead of enemies, there’s a tragic inevitability about the end result: ordinary men – husbands, fathers, brothers and sons – losing their lives for someone else’s cause. The conclusion of both Acts 1 and 2 leave us shaken and horrified as we watch grown men crumble before our eyes, and it’s these moments that linger in the memory, far more than the triumphant scenes of England’s victory at Agincourt.
The format also sheds new light on the performance itself. When Henry, played by Rhys Bevan, looks doubtful of his cause, is it actually Henry or the soldier playing him? The love scene between the triumphant young monarch and French princess Katherine (Floriane Andersen) has a touching authenticity when viewed instead as an injured soldier and the nurse caring for him. And the heartbreaking moment when Mistress Quickly (Louise Templeton) waves her men off to battle is reflected later when the two nurses must once again watch their charges march away to an uncertain fate.
The Franco-British cast are uniformly excellent. Rhys Bevan proves a brilliant addition to the company, delivering the big speeches with passion and conviction, but nailing the lighter moments too (it’s no surprise to read in the programme that he’s a comedy performer). Dean Riley is a beautifully brattish Dauphin; Stephen Lloyd shows his versatility as timid Nym and bold, outspoken Williams and Westmoreland; Adam Philps is devastating as the shell-shocked soldier playing Bardolph; Floriane Andersen and Louise Templeton are a joy to watch as both the dedicated nurses and the giddy Princess Katherine practising English with her lady in waiting Alice. I could go on…
The actors also prove themselves to be talented musicians, and their performances of Christopher Peake’s songs are spine-tingly beautiful, not least because they highlight the key emotional moments of the production. The poetry of AE Housman predates World War 1, but is nonetheless brutally candid about the horrors of conflict, and the words are a fitting accompaniment to Shakespeare’s text. The majestic cathedral setting is also a perfect fit (though it does suffer from occasional acoustic issues), giving new significance to the role of faith in times of war; even the less than temperate conditions inside feel appropriate for a field hospital.
This is the third year in a row that Antic Disposition have performed their Henry V, and having finally had a chance to experience it, I understand why audiences have been so happy to see them return. Entertaining, poignant and unforgettable, this is a production and performance that I suspect will stay with me for a long time. Catch it if you can.
Henry V continues its UK cathedral tour, concluding back at Southwark from 20th-22nd February.