Performed in the stunning (and on the night we visited, suitably chill) setting of Southwark Cathedral, Antic Disposition’s Henry V is entertaining, thought-provoking and memorable. In this production, Henry V becomes a play within a play, and we witness a war within a war. The backdrop is a World War One field hospital where Allied soldiers are convalescing; to pass the time, they perform Shakespeare’s play commemorating the battle of Agincourt, with the solider/actors adopting their respective national roles.

This imaginative and clever conceit by directors Ben Horden and John Risebero works remarkably well. Rather than detracting from or jarring with the play itself (as is often the case), the framing device here complements it, and enriches and enlivens the theatrical experience. It feels particularly apposite given the marked metadrama in Shakespeare’s original. The interplay between the “play within” and the “play-without” is intelligently and effectively deployed. Most strikingly as we watch Bardolph (played movingly by Adam Philps) facing execution by King Henry for stealing from the French - the realization that the soldier/actor is experiencing shell-shock dawns upon his fellow players and the external audience simultaneously, and makes a disturbing and powerful end to the first half.

In a further intriguing innovation, six A.E. Houseman poems, set to new music composed by regular Antic Disposition collaborator Christopher Peake, are woven into the play. Some of the settings (and some of the singers) are better than others, but overall the addition of music is very successful and works harmoniously with the drama.

Rhys Bevan is a youthful, sincere and likeable Henry V who makes good use of the acoustics of Southwark Cathedral. But he was perhaps at his best in the touching scene in which he woos Katherine, played engagingly by Floriane Anderson. The supporting cast was generally strong with particularly assured performances from Stephen Lloyd and Adam Philps.
This is a unique, exciting and impressive production undoubtedly worth making the effort to see in (at least) one of its cathedral settings.
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