This production of Henry V by Antic Disposition is a snapshot of the past. The minute you enter Middle Temple Hall you are transported into a faraway century. The decoration of the hall, as well as the classical music that can be heard at this point, set the mood for an unforgettable theatrical experience.
Everything is now ready to welcome Shakespeare’s words, but just as the show starts we are surprised by a new approach to Henry V. The plot actually starts at a hospital, where two soldiers in World War I are recovering from severe battlefields injuries. One of them is British and gives a book to the other, who is French, as a signal of gratitude for his help during the battle. This book is Shakespeare’s Henry V. In order to help time go by during the recovering process, the soldiers decide to stage the play, the cast being them and two nurses who work at the hospital. This creates the beautiful magic of theatre inside the theatre (and war inside the war, since Shakespeare’s original plot also deals with a war between England and France).
Even though the transitions between Shakespeare’s original play and the hospital are not always very clear, the moments when you can realise the difference between them are simply beautiful. For instance, at the end of the first half, James Murfitt (with the breathtaking support of Louise Templeton and Floriane Andersen) gifts us with such an emotional scene that it is almost impossible to fight back tears. It is so moving looking at a character that has been deeply traumatised by war, and who for a few minutes cannot distinguish reality from fiction or the real war from the staged one.
There are many delicious, remarkable details in this show: the use of both French and English language contributes to a clever sense of humour, and the presence of music during the whole show is key to the concept of the piece – the actors are amazing singers and talented musicians, playing several instruments with so much emotion. Christopher Peake, the composer, musical director and accompanying pianist, creates some visceral, brutal and honest songs that end up being the strongest scenes in the show. The portray perfectly what goes in soldiers’ minds whilst fighting on battlefield. It is impossible not to mention the lighting design by Tom Boucher. He gives life to all the hidden corners of the hall, exploring all the space’s potential in a clever way. The set is simple, yet serves all purposes very well.
As for the actors, it must have been such a great challenge acting in two different languages. The cast is formed of both English and French performers who speak both languages all the way through, with their beautiful funny accents and not fearing the difficult language of the text. It is always so delightful to witness theatre bringing cultures together. I would like to highlight, though, the brilliant performance of Freddie Stewart (Henry), who jumps between the characters of a young wounded soldier and a strong, determined king. The love scene between Stewart and Florian Andresen (Princess Katherine) is tender and funny, and the dramatic end that follows it makes us wish the future brings some better days for these characters and countries.
Henry V is playing at the Middle Temple Hall until 6 April and will be on tour in August and September. For more information and tickets, see the Antic Disposition website. Photo: Scott Rylander