After an acclaimed tour in 2016, Antic Disposition’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry V returns in February to embark on a tour of eight of the UK’s most historic and beautiful cathedrals. The tour begins and ends with four special performances in the Southwark Cathedral on Bankside in the heart of Shakespeare’s London. Here, Antic Disposition’s Ben Horslen and John Riseboro explain their approach to the classic – and why they’ve cast French actors in it…
What’s new about Henry V?
This was a question that we asked ourselves a lot as we prepared our production. Rarely absent from the stage and immortalised on screen by Olivier, Branagh and, most recently, Thea Sharrock and Tom Hiddleston, it’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular and well-known plays. From ‘O for a muse of fire’ to ‘We few, we happy few’ (not to mention that bloody breach), it’s endlessly quotable, dangerously familiar. We’ve seen gallant medieval knights galloping across green fields, filth-spattered soldiers mudwrestling in the rain, even an army of 80s football hooligans marching to war under a banner bearing the immortal slogan ‘Fuck the Frogs’. What could we possibly do to make our version stand out from the crowd?
For us, the key turned out to be the famous phrase, ‘we band of brothers’. That’s not particularly original in and of itself – plenty of previous productions have chosen to emphasize the camaraderie of Henry’s army of nobles and lowlifes, brought together by their shared suffering on campaign – but we decided to go a step further in combining both the French and English sides. Our concept for the production became a play within a play, set in a First World War military hospital, where two groups of wounded soldiers – one French, one British – collaborate to stage a performance of Henry V as they recuperate. In our play within a play, the enemies of 1415 have become the allies of 1915.
To make this concept work in a really authentic way, we cast French actors in several key roles. This was a new step for us, and a challenge for them, English – particularly Shakespearean English – not being their mother tongue. But not only have they risen to the challenge, our French colleagues brought a collective cultural experience of the Great War which has shaped our production, enabling us to see the similarities and differences between the British and French experience.
Using this dual perspective in the rehearsal room enabled us to develop framing scenes showing our player soldiers – on both sides – living, suffering and loving as they would have done in 1915, an international band of brothers united by their common experience and shared destiny. We felt rather proud that we had brought something a little new to this most familiar of scripts. Right up until we re-watched Olivier’s 1944 version and were reminded that was a play within a play too.
Oh well, back unto the breach…
Antic Disposition’s Henry V visits eight cathedrals around the UK from 2 to 22 February 2017, including, including Ripon, Lincoln, Peterborough, Ely and Norwich, as well as Beverley and Southwell Minsters, and London’s Southwark Cathedral. Follow @MyTheatreMates on Twitter for details on our competition to win a pair of tickets to the show.