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”.
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.”
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.