We Band Of Brothers: Henry V Goes First World War
It might be 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt, but it's also 100 years since World War One. The latter is our setting for Antic Disposition’s Henry V, taking place in the ancient and atmospheric Temple Church, and brings a new sensitivity to Shakespeare’s purportedly patriotic play.
Action begins in France, 1915. The first neat twist of the night is that the French (who, true to the directors' eye for detail, are actually played by French actors), are meant to be comrades — whereas, of course, in the play they are at war. In a private military hospital the two camps decide to put on Henry V, relishing the newly funny context of rivalry and away we go.
It takes a few minutes to make this mental leap so soon after making the first one and we sense the cast share our trepidations. But the gear shifts quickly. This First World War setting clearly is one that brings out the best in the play, not bandaged on clumsily for the sake of it. Playing the sillier speeches for their actually serious undertones works. Mistress Quickly (Louise Templeton) is moving as the traumatised nurse, who has discovered the stone cold body of the dead Falstaff. Alex Hooper’s straight talking Yorkshireman, Nym, faces the subject of death over the top with amusing, yet touching pragmatism. Bardolph (James Murfitt) breaks down in terrifying, shell-shocked like convulsions as he faces execution for stealing.
Bittersweet 1900s war poems set to Christopher Peake's original score punctuate the action. Like a beautifully orchestrated musical piece, each element works to create a unified whole. We're never thinking "when can we get to the good soliloquies", of which there are a few memorable ones here.
Freddie Stewart, who plays the cruel but kind Henry, is just two years out of RADA and is excellent as the young leader struggling to come to terms with his new responsibilities. He handles Shakespeare’s prose deftly and decisively, achieving that rare feat of an actor seeming to speak the words voluntarily rather than recite them. Images pop out at you with the language in this visuals-laden, scene setting play; Shakespeare’s equivalent of special effects. If there's a weak note, it’s that this delivery can’t be matched by the French speaking cast; the hint of accent occasionally distracting, but that’s a small gripe.
It really tops everything off to be seeing this production in Temple Church, where there's also a WWI exhibition to commemorate the young soldiers of the Knights Templar — and to have the rain sombrely sloshing down outside. This full-bodied, full blooded First World War Henry has a new depth in the hands of this talented young cast and production company.
Henry V is at Temple Church, off Fleet Street, until 5 September. Tickets: £20-£40. Londonist saw Henry V on a complimentary press ticket.
Last Updated 26 August 2015