One of Shakespeare’s most popular history plays, Antic Disposition first put on Henry V in 2015 as a “multiple anniversary production”: their 10th, and the 600th and 100th of Agincourt and the second year of the First World War. There is an element of metatheatricality to this play anyway, but this is brought more to the fore within this particular version; set in a French military hospital in 1915, wounded soldiers and their nurses join together to put on a show as a morale boost.
The main focus of the play is the Battle of Agincourt, an almost legendary story of the underdog triumphing against all odds, as the outnumbered English troops make good use of their longbows to emerge victorious against the French. It was written around 1599, possibly inspired by the rebellion in Ireland that Lord Essex was sent to disperse, and the last in a tetralogy that began with Richard II.
There are interesting parallels that can be drawn between the two settings and, indeed, the two conflicts. Not long after Agincourt, Henry V left his infant son to take the throne, who subsequently lost much of the territory that had been hard won by his father. This feeling of wasted lives echoed through the ages to World War One.
It can be said that Henry V glorifies war, and certainly seems an emphatic statement of English patriotism (“God fought for us.”), so to place it in this potentially inflammatory setting was a bold choice indeed. However, by having a combination of English and French actors in the company, and avoiding battle scenes and actual fighting, there is an overwhelming anti-war sentiment across the entire production.
The magnificent setting of Southwark Cathedral enhances the drama and tension; it has links to Shakespeare with its stained glass window and statue – as well as being located a stone’s throw from the original Globe Theatre and Rose Playhouse. Seeing Shakespeare performed in historic settings adds that certain extra something, sending a tingle down your spine. The only drawback is the acoustics – on quite a few occasions it is impossible to hear what is being said. Set up in the traverse, whichever direction the actors face there are bound to be difficult moments for all of the audience throughout. A church may be more appropriate for this setup; a lower ceiling could allow the actors to project more and fear the echo less.
The ensemble put in some touching performances, the most affecting coming as the soldiers are called back to war and have to leave their make-believe behind them. Nonetheless, despite the setting and the themes of the play, Henry V is usually quite an enjoyable affair – thanks largely to some comic diversions along the way. One such event is King Henry going in disguise amongst his troops and inadvertently being challenged by Williams. Stephen Lloyd is great fun in this role, as well as his other guise as Nym – he also has a terrific singing voice, often entrusted with solos in the musical sections.
Floriane Anderson and Louise Templeton are a hoot as Princess Katherine and Alice (her lady-in-waiting) when the young princess attempts to learn some rudimentary English. Anderson also shines as Henry attempts to woo her across their language barrier.
Giving a commanding performance as the eponymous king is Rhys Bevan. He captures perfectly a man in transition from wayward prince to honorable monarch, showing the man beneath the crown. Bevan’s aptitude for comedy also comes out in the scenes with Williams and the princess, amongst others, generating hearty chuckles from the audience. His “Once more unto the breach” is especially stirring as Henry’s troops gather round him and raise him up into the light.
My verdict? A new look at a well-known story, sensitively commemorating two bloody conflicts in human history – and in glorious surroundings.
Henry V is on a cathedral tour of the UK until 22 February 2017. Full details and tickets are available online. Tickets can also be booked through 0333 666 3366 (£1.50 booking fee), or on the door (depending on availability).