Antic Disposition is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a new production of William Shakespeare’s Henry V. The critically-acclaimed company, which is known for its site-specific and visually stunning performances, has previously performed many Shakespeare plays, but directors Ben Horslen and John Risbero decided this year to do things a little differently. The celebration of the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, as well as the ongoing centenary of the First World War, has inspired a production that both reflects on historical events and pays tribute to the many lives lost and the common man doing his bit for the patriarchy.
The play begins in France in 1915, as both French and English soldiers are brought to a military hospital not far from Agincourt. In order to distract themselves from pain and raise each other’s spirits, the soldiers decide to put on a production of Henry V. It begins a little pantomime-esque with paper hats and ration tin crowns, but it is not long before we are immersed in the action and transported back to 1415. We watch as Henry V rallies his troops for the battle of Agincourt and attempts to woo the beautiful French princess Katharine. To see both French and English soldiers coming together to tell a story of their history is extremely moving, as two countries who were once enemies have now become allies.
Freddie Stewart beautifully delivers Henry’s iconic pre-battle monologue, showing vulnerability and yet courage in Henry’s moments of doubt and apprehension. In fact, Stewart stands above the rest of the cast throughout the play, his outstanding acting ability teamed with his ease with the text making it clear he is no novice when it comes to Shakespeare’s difficult language.
The location of the show is the beautiful and historic Temple Church. One of London’s oldest churches, it has seen many Shakespearean productions played within its walls, the first being over 400 years ago. The magnificence and grandeur of the building lend itself wonderfully to Shakespeare’s text and create a relevant backdrop for a play that sees many soldiers turn to God for help and faith throughout their darkest hours. When the soldiers all turn and kneel facing one of the church’s superb stained glass windows, a moment of reflection creates a powerful ambience. The thrust staging ensure audiences are immersed throughout and the costumes create realism, contrasting with the Elizabethan style lack of scenery. Christopher Peake’s musicalisation of A.E. Housman’s poetry allows moments of sadness and reflection in a play full of fast-paced action and dialogue.
A particularly heart-breaking moment sees James Murfitt’s Gower unable to separate the play from his painful memories of war, as he acts out a scene where his character Bardolph is about to be hanged and breaks into a fit of shell shock. Although this is one of the many evocative and disturbing moments of the evening, the directors ensure that humour is also found within this complex text.
Henry V is playing at the Temple Church until 5 September. For more information and tickets, see the Antic Disposition website. Photo: Scott Rylander.