3 February 2017
Antic Disposition’s Henry V deserves its revival tour of British Cathedrals. It is a slick theatrical operation, well-acted, well-designed and well-conceived. The premise for the production is simple yet smart; French and English soldiers in a military hospital act out Shakespeare’s history play ironically close to where 500 years before their forces clashed at Agincourt. This piece ticks all boxes, acknowledging Shakespeare’s 400th and the centenary of the Great War whilst seeming topical and fresh to our present day. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and this couldn’t be more apparent in this Henry V. The simple set is used imaginatively. It never competes with the incomparable surroundings of the cathedral architecture and the actors multi-role adeptly, delivering an exemplary production – evidence of a company at the height of its powers.
For those of us familiar with the James I bible, hearing Shakespeare in our churches and cathedrals is nothing new, but there is something fundamentally exhilarating about seeing the dirty, confusing mess of our human lives dragged in full technicolour into a space usually reserved for reflection and solace. We are seated in the knave of Southwark Cathedral in traverse: an arrangement that makes for dynamic action and thrilling proximity whilst simultaneously polarising the opposing French and English armies. The play begins with a pageant of misery as soldiers stagger across the transept attended by frantic nurses. Then, framed in the simple gift of a copy of Henry V from an English soldier to his French saviour, the wounded while away their convalescence escaping from the miserable field hospital into Shakespeare’s text together.
The meta-theatre lends itself easily to the comedic elements of the play, including the wonderfully rambling exposition by Charles Neville as The Archbishop of Canterbury. No longer the playboy prince, Rhys Bevan (familiar to any Archers fans) masterfully conveys the frustration and steely determination of the newly resolved monarch, fighting against his besmirched reputation as much as any foreign army. The Crispin’s Day speech is given in a rugby scrum with Henry held aloft to electrifying effect whilst Bevan’s voice reverberates through the cavernous cathedral. However, the drama is nowhere more poignant than at the end of the first half where Adam Philps playing Bardolph, unable to discern between the played reality and the play within a play, succumbs to a fit of shell shock. He reminds us of the brutality and heavy burden of war that no amount of poetry and prancing can mask.
Rosie Williamson’s musical direction does a fine job of underscoring the piece and we are treated to songs in French as well as English. Dean Riley as the brattish Dauphin provides texture to the pre-recorded sound with the welcome addition of an accordion whilst the singing across the board is harmonious and in keeping with the Great War theme.
The frequently problematic Kate scene is sensitively negotiated by Bevan and Floriane Anderson as Princess Katherine; the “broken music” given her is embroidered and ornamented with a vast emotional landscape that lives in every look and gesture. Other performances of note include the multi-faceted Louise Templeton as Mistress Quickly and Alice and swaggering Callum Oates as Exeter and Bates. Although truly this is an ensemble effort and all the actors support each other beautifully; a “band of brothers,” indeed.
Antic Disposition’s production propounds the danger of blind patriotism and the universal loss sustained in any conflict. Henry V is the story of a boy who wants to play at war but must carry the weight of that responsibility as a man. My only criticism might be that the production never hit the same pitch of emotion in the second half as the first, and perhaps the pace could have been upped during the play’s denouement. All the same, if all cathedrals could provoke this level of profound contemplation, they would be doing their job with distinction. I think Shakespeare would certainly have approved and I couldn’t help agreeing that – as a student of mine (who also happened to be there) gushed – “it was brilliant.”