Shakespeare’s most nationalistic play, set in the trenches, in a production to celebrate the anniversaries of the Battle of Agincourt, the First World War, and the death of our nation’s most famous playwright. So far, so ram-it-down-your-throat patriotic, right? Wrong. Antic Disposition’s Henry V, cast from both sides of the English Channel, is a surprising and truly original take on the play that captures the spirit of the Entente Cordiale and livens up the text with some AE Housman poems set to music by Christopher Peake.
The production opens with an air of panic as men are rushed into a makeshift hospital from the battlefield. Moved by the kindness shown to him by a French officer (with a touching play on “mercy” as an Anglicised mispronunciation of merci), a British soldier passes him a book as a gift. The French officer looks bemused, then furious when the nurse explains that it is Shakespeare’s “Henri Cinq”. Eventually, seeing that the young soldier means well, the officer accepts the gift, and the recovering soldiers from both armies stage the play on the ward.
Directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero say that their production takes “only a few liberties… and some minor stretching of probability”, but it’s really no stretch of the imagination, especially in the hands of the talented cast. Since Henry V toys with the idea of theatre and what it means to stage a play for the imagination so much, Antic Disposition’s concept driven approach works well. It’s believable that these men might be putting on a play to get through the horrors of the war and their wounds, using rolled bandages as tennis balls and tin cans as crowns, and it’s deeply moving.
Freddie Stewart is a powerful Henry V, playing the character as a nervous young recruit and an inexperienced military leader struggling with his responsibilities. The wartime setting is a perfect fit that allows some ingenious, and occasionally hilarious, characterisation. There’s more than a touch of ‘Dad’s Army’ about Henry’s soldiers – more a motley crew than a valiant band of brothers – including Stephen Lloyd as an adorably bumbling, bespectacled Nym. Over in France, Floriane Andersen and Louise Templeton as Princess Katherine and Alice giggle like schoolgirls over the French words for body parts, but bring a careful sense of apprehension to the wooing scenes.
The production matches its darkest moments with light, adding rousing songs to lift the spirits of soldiers and spectators alike, effective despite the difficult acoustics of the Hall. The real moment of brilliance, though, comes just before the interval when one soldier (James Murfitt, playing Bardolph) breaks character and breaks down when a gun is held to his head, clearly struggling with PTSD. It’s a heart-breaking moment, utterly jarring after the production’s slow start, and the first time I have ever cried at a Henry V. The real victory here is that Antic Disposition make the play new, remembering those battles long past while also speaking of the wars that wage on. A very clever production in a beautiful setting, this gripping and gut-wrenching Henry V is about to embark on a nationwide cathedral tour – don’t miss it.