Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Ben Horslen and John Risebero
Composer/Musical Director: Christopher Peake
Reviewer: Michael Gray
This unique staging of Henry V premièred last year in the Temple Church. Now, before setting off on a tour of English Cathedrals, it’s moved around the corner to the equally evocative Middle Temple Hall, one of the very few performance spaces still in use that Shakespeare himself would have known.
It is a powerful and timely adaptation. It blends the Bard with Housman, Shakespeare 400 with Antic Disposition’s 10th birthday, the Great War with Agincourt, fought over the same fields of Northern France 500 years earlier.
In this Elizabethan auditorium, it’s an intimate, minimalist experience. Munition crates for furniture, ration cans for crowns, Croix Rouge cardboard mitres, bandages for tennis balls. Set in a field hospital, it begins stunningly with glimpses of frenzied activity in the wood-panelled corridors outside as the wounded are rushed in for treatment. At such close quarters, there’s no room for artifice; the costumes and the performances are all totally convincing.
The central concept – that a mixed ward of French and British soldiers collaborate to mount a production of Henry V – is very strong, bringing fresh insights into the play: not only the nationality thing, but the thankless, unsung role of the Poor Bloody Infantry in both conflicts.
The Chorus’s prologue – there’ll be much work for our “imaginary forces” in the next two hours – is shared between the two camps. The traverse staging often reminds us of the gulf between, “fire answers fire” …
A superb company of actors from both sides of the Channel. Freddie Stewart makes a compelling, very youthful, king – mischievous with the glove, thrillingly inspired in the Breach scene – wonderfully staged – and caught up in his own oratory in the Band of Brothers speech.
Among a uniformly excellent company, James Lavender, reminiscent of Bairnsfather’s Old Bill, begins as an awkward amateur actor (the Salic Law survives the scissors) and is also a marvellous Pistol. His wife, Mistress Quickly, is touchingly done by Louise Templeton, who also gives a superbly bilingual Alice, waiting woman to Floriane Andersen’s engaging, amusing Katherine. One of the most moving moments comes just before the interval, when James Murfitt’s Bardolph, about to be shot for looting, confuses the theatre with the grim reality of the trenches and suffers a total breakdown. The King calls him by his name – “It’s not real…”, the nurses try to calm him, the company gathers round to sing Housman’s White in the Moon.
The Shropshire Lad settings by Butterworth, killed in action in 1916, were one of the inspirations for this production. The Lads In Their Hundreds is sung in the original, the rest newly set by composer Christopher Peake, at the upright in the performance. They are a constant reminder of the futility of war, from the jaunty, jingoistic Leave Your Home Behind Lads, to I Hear The Bugle Blow as the men stand restless – greyhounds in the slips – till the whistle sends them over the top.
And at the end, the Lads in Their Hundreds again, bitterly barked out as the men are recalled to the front. “The lads who will die in their glory and never be old.” The play is done, the actors have muttered modest congratulations, the French and English march their separate ways, and the two women are left alone, Nurse Katherine still clutching her bridal bouquet of poppies.
Runs until 6 April 2016 then touring | Image: Scott Rylander