In ordinary circumstances I need to be dragged to Shakespeare, and not even Hozier can Take Me To Church, but Antic Disposition’s happy coincidence of blood, bandage and badinage in a soldierly setting made their Henry V no penance at all.
To start with, Temple Church is a gorgeous light and vaulting space, and the planked traverse stage feels solid and well-appointed as does the whole place thanks to the patronage of the judges and barristers whose premises nudge in on it from every side. The Inner Temple is a funny little enclave of bourgeoisie: the men on Grindr wore ties.
Of course in this approximate centenary year, everything that can be has been re-imagined and re-staged in the trenches of the First World War. Even the Open Air Theatre’s Peter Pan gave us a succession of poppy-strewn, shell-shocked, Somme-enchanted evenings. But here at least you are dealing with an actual battle on French soil: Agincourt, 25 October 1415 and so the device of a field hospital works to introduce the characters, with some genuine French actors who gamely tackle their share of the script with success interspersed with odd moments of Antoine de Caunes‘ ‘mah leetle English churms’. Naturally we side with the English, where the rustics Bardolph, Nym and Pistol ably double the nobles Exeter, Westmoreland and – I don’t know – High Barnet, it doesn’t really matter because what you’re taking in is not their separate personalities but quite a contemporary reading of their collective attitude to military and monarchical authority and to heroism.
This surrounds the recent RADA graduate and quite first-rate Freddie Stewart as Henry with a company you feel he actually has to win over to do battle. He does so impressively in his two big set-pieces, firstly in the second most-misquoted line in history (after ‘Come up and see me some time’, which Mae West never actually said) ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’ which is declaimed and formal and the soldiers shoulder him aloft – but much more tellingly in his quiet, halting, thought-developing version of ‘This day is called the feast of Crispian’ which he made so moving, so tangibly the 28-year-old soldier king feeling his way in an unfamiliar command that when he got to ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ I seemed to have something in my eye.
The lovely, pastoral Englishness of the piece is underscored with folk-tune lilts in four-part harmony of some of A E Houseman’s verse, interesting in itself because Houseman claimed his greatest literary influence was Shakespeare’s songs, but also very sweetly rendered.
The lighting is lovely, the costumes meticulously researched although the ‘horizon blue’ forage caps worn by French soldiers in 1915 do make Victor Klein as the Constable of France look exactly like Virgil Tracy from Thunderbirds. With the deconstructed format it does help to know at least the outline of the play and whilst by no means essential, a smattering of French will allow you to share in the filthiest joke in all Shakespeare in Act 3.
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