France, 1915: World War One is waging outside but a military hospital near the village of Azincourt provides a brief respite for the wounded French and English soldiers. An Englishman arrives and pulls out a book, offering it to his French comrade as an honest but perhaps misjudged token of gratitude. It’s Henry V. Excitement fizzes amongst the soldiers as they decide to stage a production of the Shakespearean play to distract them from the horror of their present reality.
What begins as a tentative and merry expression of camaraderie soon snowballs into a mighty and emotionally shattering performance. Antic Disposition’s production of Henry V offers, on a surface level, all the resplendence and poetics of Shakespeare, at the same time as demonstrating the modern significance, both emotionally and anthropologically, of Shakespeare’s work.
The actors aren’t so much playing Shakespearean soldiers as they are playing World War One soldiers, full of a compassion and menace that perfectly equips them for the roles of Shakespeare’s writing and the mighty men who fought in the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.
The backdrop of the war blazing in the distance brings the issues of the 16th-century play into a modern context, revealing the patterns that make up our world’s history. With a historically important military church for its location and a cast comprised of both French and English actors, the play has a strong sense of rusticity about it.
The acoustics of the church add glamour to the words and amplify the choral interludes into bellowing soundscapes of honour and glory. The ingeniously placed and beautifully sung songs underline the spirit of the allied troops that gave rise to their production, as well as providing a soft balance to the politics and warfare. The standard of acting itself is superb. After a tour of France the cast are, by now, very well-rehearsed, and this shows in the ease and the palpable pleasure with which they perform.
As much as this is a collective success, as in the wars they portray, Freddie Stewart’s Henry V is exceptional. He stretches right down into all the tributaries of his characters and fills them with his intense energy and sharp articulacy. An accomplished and mesmerising play, this ingenious production of Henry V is not to be missed.
Henry V is on at Temple Church until 5th September 2015, for further information or to book tickets visit here.