One would not normally compare the plights of the British Army in the Battle of Agincourt and WWI. Yet despite the obvious contrasting features – the former casting the English as aggressors invading France, and in the latter, the two previous enemies fighting as allies – Antic Disposition’s innovative production of Henry V draws unexpected parallels between the two conflicts. And it works. It really works.
Performed in the atmospheric context of Southwark Cathedral, this adaptation of a much-loved Shakespearean history is set in the frame of a WWI military field hospital. Both French and British soldiers stumble down the aisle (which has now become a stage) coughing and yelling in pain, propped up and supported by allied nurses. We are left with two soldiers, who exchange the gift of a book. Henry V. “IS THIS A JOKE?” the French soldier shouts, offended. “It’s the only book I have on me”, the Tommy diffuses the situation as the action dissolves into the populous of Antic Disposition’s trench warfare world; putting on a make-do-and-mend version of Henry V as a distraction from their surroundings. This is where the true genius of the production lies.
The performers are caught in a humorous paradox in which they are ‘putting on a play within a play’, utilising whatever they can get their hands on to act as costume and props. A mop becomes a sword, crowns are made of corrugated metal, and a pile of bandages is in place of the Dauphin’s present to King Henry of England. A comic tone develops, supported by a sense of English stereotyping which creates an unexpected light-hearted atmosphere in a production that is often performed with solemnity. Though one may argue that this approach could distract from the gravity of Shakespeare’s subject, it instead only benefits the production – the sharp cuts into darker, grittier moments benefitting from the contrast of earlier more jovial scenes.
The execution of soldier Bardolph for looting a cathedral is particularly affecting, thanks to performer Adam Philps’ screaming and crying in the face of a gun. A fellow solider tries to calm him down “it’s not real! It’s not real!” A nurse rushes down and cradles him. We realise he is no longer portraying Bardolph, but we are back in 1914-18 France, where the events of the play have triggered severely affecting flashbacks, leaving the audience shocked and speechless before the end of the first half.
If the most effective element of this production is the crosscutting between time zones, the most questionable is the inclusion of music and song. Whilst the accumulation of voices is supported by the fantastic acoustics of Southwark Cathedral, at times breaking out into song seems to distract from the flow of the action or solely inserted as a transition device between scenes. Yet there are times it works to great effect – a poignant French song as the soldiers prepare for battle.
Directors Ben Horslen and John Risbero describe their production of Henry V as a “multiple anniversary production” reflecting on the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and the WWI Centenary. The dual historical timelines that run through the piece offer points for comparison that do not only impress due to clever directorial considerations, but prompt discussions of the fate of ‘the common man’ in war time. Discussions that feel relevant to our increasingly turbulent modern times.
Antic Disposition’s Henry V ran at Southwark Cathedral from 2-3 February, and is now set to tour Cathedrals around the UK. For more information on the tour, click here.
Photo by Scott Rylander