There’s a sense of nationalistic pride when you hear some of the gung-ho speeches in Shakespeare’s Henry V, their words a rousing send-off whether to the millions heading for the front line trenches during the Great War or for those about to die for their country on the field of Agincourt 600 years ago.
Antic Disposition’s moving and atmospheric production of Henry V, which opened in London’s Temple Church last night, was not only a play within a play, but a battle within a battle, with the cast of French and English soldiers performing the Bard’s work while recovering in a WWI field hospital.
And directors Ben Hoslan and John Risebero threw in some shocking and deeply disturbing bombshell moments of their own, lest we forget exactly what was happening in the world outside of the makeshift stage.
The play, about a decisive victory by England over France, was chosen to mark Antic’s 10th anniversary, and the anniversaries of the First World War and Battle of Agincourt.
Bravely they took it to France earlier this month, with an Anglo-French cast, and Antic emerged unscathed with the nations still at peace (well, almost) thanks to its staging.
Instead of a straight-forward conflict war drama we have a story of peace and entente cordiale.
What emerges from the production is a profound sense of loss. Generations of ordinary young men, separated by 500 years, answering the war cry and being sent off to almost certain death.
Set in WWI we meet a group of war wounded and a young Tommy gives a copy of “Henri Cinq” to a French soldier who had helped him.
The patients, aided by their two French nurses, stage the play with infantryman Freddie Stewart, donning the British crown, roughly made of beaten-out tin cans, cast as the jingoistic young hothead, the former Prince Hal.
Here’s a boy in a man’s uniform, easily influenced by his court that the right thing to do was to snatch back possession of France and he will stop at nothing to regain the country.
But the soldiers are brought startlingly back to reality in a powerfully played scene that genuinely upset some audience members.
James Murfitt’s comic role as the cowardly drunk, Bardolph, sees him captured for looting and being threatened with execution.
The shell-shocked soldier’s reaction to the arrest is explosive and harrowing with Stewart, looking visibly distressed, calling out the actor’s real name to ask if he’s all right. I found the wholly realistic performance profoundly upsetting.
Later the entire cast of “amateur players” are reminded of where they are by the sound of gunfire and explosions out in the field and all too soon they are recalled to their units.
Stewart’s performance is commanding. As a leader of men he stirs them into battle (“Once more unto the breach”) and with the famous lines from the Crispin’s Day speech. Gosh, I almost felt like jumping up and volunteering myself.
Later, the warrior king is wonderfully gauche and unsure of himself as he woos the French king’s daughter, Katherine (a delightful performance by an illuminating French actress, Floriane Andersen).
But his most moving and noble moment comes when he learns of the losses incurred on the battlefield after Agincourt (Google contradicts Shakespeare’s figures, but they were in the region of just 112 English dead to more than 10,000 French). The shocking figures deeply affected the young king.
The production is very much an ensemble piece but Stewart stands out as an impressive king while Geoffrey Towers injects gravitas and solemnity into his role as the soldiers’ commanding officer and Henry’s chief adviser and uncle, the Duke of Exeter. It couldn’t be more different to a later, minor role, he plays as a Geordie foot-soldier.
Dean Riley’s flamboyant and arrogant Dauphin is a treat, as is the turns by Andersen and Louise Templeton as both Mistress Quickly and Alice, Katherine’s lady-in-waiting.
But I was constantly drawn to Murfitt who attracted attention even when he wasn’t centre stage, as he quietly sat on army crates, consumed and trembling from the horrors of war. It was an absorbing performance at odds with the other servicemen who seemingly had escaped visible injury.
The Temple Church, home to the original “God’s soldiers,” the Knights Templar, is a fitting venue for such a war-like story, its splendid stained glass windows playing their part in the play.
But the drawback is putting in a traverse stage running up the central aisle, and the acoustics of the very lovely and fascinating building.
Sitting at one end, next to the “English” camp, I found it difficult to hear the dialogue from the “French” players at the other end (and, I guess, vice versa). Similarly a lot of lines are lost in the cavernous ceiling of the church.
But it is a beautifully crafted production that includes some wonderful songs which are richly sung by the whole cast.
They started life as AE Houseman poems and have been skilfully put to music by composer, musical director and pianist (a man of many talents) Christopher Peake.
Henry V plays at the Temple Church until September 5.
Once more unto the breach. Antic Disposition’s anniversary production, Henry V, at London’s Temple Church, is powerful, disturbing, shocking and deeply moving.