Review: Much Ado About Nothing at Gray’s Inn Hall

Well, it’s official. I was already a fan of Antic Disposition’s work after enjoying their productions of Henry V and Richard III – but their latest offering, a joyous and hilarious take on Much Ado About Nothing, has well and truly sealed the deal. The play itself I have all kinds of issues with, but I’m not going to get into those, because I had such a great time watching this production that I’m seriously considering a return visit before the run ends on 1st September.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Transplanted from Italy to a small French village at the end of World War II, Much Ado sees Don Pedro (Theo Landey) and his triumphant soldiers call in to visit the town’s Governor, Leonato (Chris Hespel) on their way home. One of the officers, Claudio (Alexander Varey), falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Floriane Andersen), and Don Pedro steps in to arrange their marriage. He then turns his attention to convincing Hero’s cousin Béatrice (Chiraz Aïch) and another of his men, Benedick (Nicholas Osmond), that their constant bickering actually masks much deeper feelings. It’s all going swimmingly, until Pedro’s bastard brother Don John (Alfie Webster) teams up with soldier Borachio (Tommy Burgess) and Hero’s unwitting maid Margaret (Molly Miles) to convince Claudio that Hero’s been unfaithful to him, leading him to publicly shame her and leave her for dead on her wedding day. But this is a Shakespearean comedy, so we can all guess what happens next: Don John’s plot is uncovered, all is forgiven, and everyone has a song and dance to end the evening.

The Anglo-French cast are superb. Chiraz Aïch and Nicholas Osmond give brilliant verbal and physical comedy performances as Béatrice and Benedick, while Alexander Varey is a perfectly petulant Claudio to Floriane Andersen’s tender-hearted (and, in my opinion, far too forgiving) Hero. But the stars of the show, for me, are the two relatively minor characters of Dogberry and Verges, played by the wonderful Louis Bernard and Scott Brooks. Presumably there’s not a lot of policing to be done in this small rural village, because Constable Dogberry and his long-suffering deputy also appear to run – somewhat ineptly – a cafe on the side. This not only means we get to see much more of their characters in Act 1 than we usually would; it also allows directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero to explore the predominantly silent comedic style of French film director Jacques Tati. Bernard is particularly delightful to watch; we may not understand everything he says but such is his charisma it really doesn’t matter – and because English isn’t Dogberry’s native language, we’re much more sympathetically inclined than usual towards him and his bizarre vocabulary. (Also, “I am an ass!” sounds much funnier in a French accent.)

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

In addition to the bilingual cast, there are other elements of the production that will be familiar to fans of Antic Disposition’s previous shows. Music plays an important part in the play; Nick Barstow’s compositions, performed by the cast, contribute to the evening’s celebratory mood. The venue too is unique: having visited some of the nation’s most stunning cathedrals during July, followed by performances in France earlier this month, the tour concludes at London’s historic Gray’s Inn Hall, which is transformed for the occasion into Dogberry’s very traditional French cafe.

In summary, this production is so much fun that you’re pretty much guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face (and possibly with a hankering to run away to the French countryside). Don’t miss the final few opportunities to be charmed by this riotously entertaining clash of cultures.

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Interview: David Burt, A Christmas Carol

Antic Disposition’s critically acclaimed production of A Christmas Carol returns to Middle Temple Hall this festive season, with Olivier Award nominated star of the West End David Burt in the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Adapted for the stage by Antic Disposition’s artistic directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero, the show combines Charles Dickens’ classic tale with a score of original songs inspired by the carols of a traditional Victorian Christmas.

“It may sound strange but I feel quite affectionate towards the old grump. He’s like an old friend now!” says David, who’s returning to the role of Scrooge in this production for the third time. “People sometimes think of the character as a bit one dimensional, but for me there’s always something new to discover. Dickens describes him as being ‘as solitary as an oyster’ and you have to ask yourself what sort of experience can drive a person to shut themselves off from the rest of the world as completely as Scrooge has done. That’s really interesting!”

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Over 170 years after it was written, A Christmas Carol remains one of the world’s best-loved festive stories. David believes this is largely due to its continuing relevance: “One of the most brilliant things about the story is the way it combines a celebration of Christmas with a cautionary tale about what happens if we don’t respect its message,” he explains. “The need for love, charity and understanding remains as strong today as when Dickens wrote the book in 1843.”

The return of A Christmas Carol marks the end of another successful year for Antic Disposition, whose recent productions include cathedral tours of Henry V and Richard III. “It’s such a friendly company, and several of the actors have been doing this show as long as I have, so getting back together is always fun,” says David.

Although this is the fourth outing for the show, which was previously performed in 2012, 2014 and 2015, this time around it’s been revised and expanded for performance by a cast of actor musicians. David believes it’s this musical aspect of the production that makes it stand out from the crowd. “This year there’s new music, and more of it – and this time the actors are playing instruments as well as the band. I think the music is what really lifts this version. It’s all played and sung live and really conjures up a Christmas atmosphere. Plus there are a couple of new bits of stage business this time that I won’t spoil for you!”

Photo credit: Scott Rylander

In addition, the show is performed once again in a unique and stunning venue – London’s Middle Temple Hall. “There’s a direct connection to Dickens, which makes it pretty special he trained there to be a barrister,” David explains. “But it’s also just such a beautiful building, steeped in history, it always feels quintessentially Christmassy here.

Review: Richard III at Temple Church

Antic Disposition certainly know how to make a good first impression. Temple Church, their home for the next two weeks, is another majestic, beautiful and powerfully historic setting for the company’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III – and brings to an end their most recent tour of some of the UK’s most stunning cathedrals.

Fortunately, the awe-inspiring venue is more than matched by the quality of the show, which is utterly absorbing from start to finish. Based on the probably completely untrue history of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the play recounts his bloody path to the throne as he gradually eliminates every other heir in his way, before being defeated at Bosworth Field by the future King Henry VII.

This modern interpretation reimagines the royal family and their entourage as well-heeled city types, and even without the little topical details – which include a comedy mayor called Boris, and a competitive handshake Donald Trump would be proud of – the point being made is clear. Our leaders may no longer send each other to the executioner’s block, but the ruthlessness of those who seek power for their own ends is just as dangerous today as it was 500 years ago.

At the head of a fantastic cast is Toby Manley as the murderous monarch, in a performance so charming that it’s easy to see how he keeps getting his way. Watching him, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock; he plays his part so well that you can forget how evil he actually is – if not for the occasional furious outbursts that expose the crazed ambition lurking within. And in case that doesn’t do the job, a glance down the aisle reveals a silent army of vengeful ghosts, as each of Richard’s victims rises from the grave to take his or her place and wait for an opportunity to have their revenge.

This simple yet powerfully effective device from directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero not only helps keep track of the rising body count, but also contributes to the play’s sense of impending doom as we build towards a spine-tingling climax. And they’re not alone, as Louise Templeton’s Queen Margaret, draped in the flag of her dead husband and son’s royal house, appears regularly on stage like Hamlet’s ghost to ensure justice is done.

Perhaps surprisingly in a play so full of violence, there’s also a lot of humour, in the dramatic, semi-hysterical posturing of Joe Eyre’s Buckingham, who could be mistaken for a radical religious preacher as he makes the speech that secures Richard’s place on the throne. And Robert Nairne’s Catesby, who’s transformed for this production into a no-nonsense security man, enjoys some fun interaction with the audience as he hands out flags for the young princes’ arrival, before smugly presenting the two moody teenagers with an XBox to keep them quiet.

It’s clear from both the production and the directors’ programme notes that there’s a topical subtext to be found in Antic Disposition’s interpretation of Richard III. But this message is applied subtly enough – for the most part – that anyone who simply wants to see an excellent and very accessible production of Shakespeare’s historical play will find themselves more than satisfied. It takes some doing to put together a performance so gripping that it can distract from such an amazing venue – but while the setting certainly adds atmosphere, the true star of this show is the show itself.

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Review: Henry V at Southwark Cathedral

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.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

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…

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

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.

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Interview: John Risebero, Henry V

John Risebero is co-director and designer of award-winning theatre company Antic Disposition, along with co-founder and director Ben Horslen. Next month they’ll be reviving their acclaimed production of Henry V; previously performed in France, with two London runs and a 2016 national tour, the show is taking to the road once more, giving audiences another chance to see what British Theatre called “one of the most impressive revivals of a Shakespeare play that I have seen in recent years”.

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Founded in 2005, Antic Disposition have become known for their innovative interpretations of classic texts, particularly the works of Shakespeare – and the timing of this particular production was no accident. John explains: “We’d wanted to stage Henry V for several years but because we always tour our Shakespeare plays in France, we could never see a way to do it without being insensitive to our French hosts. But then we realised that not only was 2015 the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, it was also the centenary of the Great War, which gave us the opportunity to create a production that reflected on the change in the relationship between England and France in those five centuries – from mortal enemies to loyal allies. So our production is set in a military hospital in France, where wounded British and French soldiers work together to stage their own production of Henry V. It’s really a play within a play – Henry V meets Oh, What a Lovely War.

In addition to Shakespeare’s text, the play also includes original songs and live music inspired by the poetry of A E Housman. “We knew we wanted to include music in the show but using period songs seemed too obvious and we weren’t comfortable writing new ones,” says John. “Then we discovered George Butterworth’s musical setting of ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ from A Shropshire Lad and found that Housman had acknowledged he was inspired by Shakespeare. Although Housman’s work predates the Great War, so much of it reads like he knew what was coming. Our brilliant composer, Christopher Peake, set six more poems to original music for our show but we still use Butterworth’s version of ‘The Lads in Their Hundreds’ – it’s our tribute to him, as he died on the Somme in 1916.

“The music is completely integral. Soldiers have always used song to lift spirits or celebrate victory. As well as poetry, the Great War gave us so much music that’s still with us, songs like ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-bag’. In our production, we use music at key moments to bring the two sides together and remind the audience that war is a shared experience. It’s emotional shorthand.”

Photo credit: Scott Rylander
Photo credit: Scott Rylander

Although the play may be set in the past, John believes it still has a powerful message to share with a modern day audience: “Absolutely. War is a huge gamble, often taken too lightly. The French massively outnumbered the English at Agincourt but still lost the battle. In 1914, everyone thought the Great War would be over by Christmas, but it turned into one of the most destructive conflicts in history. It’s easy to open Pandora’s box, but the consequences can never be fully foreseen.”

Antic Disposition have also developed a reputation for staging productions in historic buildings and unusual non-theatre spaces, and this tour is no exception; Henry V will visit eight cathedrals around the UK, including Ripon, Lincoln, Peterborough, Ely, Norwich and Southwark. “We started out working in theatres but haven’t staged a play on a conventional stage for six years now,” John explains. “We find working in unusual buildings more exciting. There’s a special kind of magic when you are performing Henry V with the tomb of King John in the front row of the audience, as we did at Worcester Cathedral. It can be challenging from an acoustic perspective – many of our venues weren’t designed for this kind of performance, but we feel that those challenges are more than made up for by an atmosphere you can’t get in a regular auditorium.”

The 2017 tour of Henry V opens at Southwark Cathedral on 2nd February – and it’s not only audiences who are looking forward to its return. “We had a wonderful experience touring cathedrals last spring and wanted to bring the show to new venues and new audiences,” concludes John. “We think it’s the best work we’ve done as a company, and we’re very proud of it.”

Antic Disposition’s Henry V visits eight cathedrals around the UK from 2nd to 22nd February.