Antic Disposition (Southwark Cathedral)
Although I went on the first night of their 2017 tour, this is a mature production of Henry V that has been on tour for at least one year, and it shows in the sure-footedness of the telling.
Set in World War One, the theme obviously resonated with Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, and with me – as I mentioned before, I am researching my former colleagues (as it were) who fell in the war and they include among them a published poet who was sniped in the battle of Arras in April 1917. This production felt so personal (and incidentally rang so true – for our office magazine I wrote a piece last autumn which included details of a performance of Henry V in Calais in 1915. They had to pull strings to avoid the lead actor being recalled to the front on the day of the show). Layer on the songs, setting to music the poetry of A E Housman who was one of my grandmother’s favourite poets, and let’s just say I had a lot of emotions…
There was a straightforward conceit – that French and British troops, allies, met on the battlefield and while in hospital decided to put on the play. This lent itself to a stripped-back set, just a few boxes and a couple of flags, really, and simple costuming – French soldiers, British soldiers, nurses. There were clear moments too when the “real life” of the soldiers bled into their production. They may not have been quite as stark as in the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy but certainly exercised the same powerful dramatic muscle.
A staging (and a setting) so immediate and powerful requires a damn good cast to pull it off. This company comes together like a well-oiled machine. The casting of several francophone actors to play the French helped to provide that indefinable air of contrast between the two*. Floriane Andersen was a skittish Kate, the comedy coming perilously close to hysteria on occasion, which was delicately contrasted with the calm and capable WW1 nurse who glimmered through. Dean Riley was an incredibly childish, peevish Dauphin, with Maurice Byrne a measured, solid king and Marius Hesper as most of the French court. Louis Bernard stood out for his defeated governor of Harfleur, so weary as he said “We yield our town and lives to thy soft mercy”**.
The British were busy doubling up. Louise Templeton’s Mistress Quickly was a gorgeous pen portrait of a woman losing all her support – Falstaff to death, and Pistol, Bardolph and Nym to war – and trying to put a brave face on it, while her Alice was an indulgent, protective nurse. Stephen Lloyd was a veritable chameleon as both a bookish, shy, bespectacled Nym and the combative Williams who comes to blows with the King. Charles Neville gave us two very different schemers, in the Archbishop of Canterbury who sets Henry off to war to protect his own position and in Pistol the roaring devil. Andrew Hodges and Callum Coates were an NCO/Officer double-act who could have come from any period in the history of the army – and I’ve seen Coates’s moustache and kindly-but-authoritative stare in any number of battalion photographs. Adam Philps stood out as a sanguine go-between Bardolph, and more so as the slowly-crumbling shell-shocked soldier who completely went to pieces when confronted with a gun.
The play of course belongs to Henry, and Rhys Bevan (who as far as I can tell from the programme was new to the role for this tour) was an outstanding Henry. The night I was there he had lost a crucial prop but managed – just about – to avoid corpsing or derailing the plot***. You got a wonderful sense of the archetypal WW1 lieutenant – smart, jealous of his power, sensitive to mockery, realising the quality and awesome responsibility of the men under his command. His love for Kate was also the perfectly understandable love of a recuperating soldier for his nurse****. He was the perfect blend of cocky and great-hearted, exactly what the English love in their war heroes.
As an aside – not all of the references that pulled me up short were the First World War ones. I mean – what to make of this speech in the current climate?
If the enemy is an ass, and a fool, and a prating coxcomb, is it meet, think you, that we should also, look you, be an ass, and a fool, and a prating coxcomb?
In many ways this isn’t a ground-breaking production – many of the ideas, like the double story-telling, I have seen a number of times in the last three years – but it has a heart and a soul which will linger long in the memory. The cast sharing the prologue, and singing some devastatingly good songs, just highlighted the awful, powerful camaraderie of war, of being that band of brothers. I will not soon be able to shake the image of those men marching off to Butterworth and Housman.
* Does anyone else find this? Also with Americans – they don’t have to open their mouths, often there’s just something in the mannerisms or the way they hold themselves, or their hair cuts even – you just know they aren’t what you grew up with. I’m sure it works in reverse too.
** I’m pretty sure they cut out some of the stuff about the babies on spits though…
*** And in the final scene he was the only soldier without a hat, so I suspect the stage manager is going to have to keep an eye on him.
**** Mainly I was delighted he did recuperate – from his first appearance, coughing up his lungs, I feared the production would end with his as well as Henry’s death.