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Theatre Review: Henry V @ Southwalk Cathedral


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Two years ago, to mark the 600th anniversary of the historical battle of Agincourt, theatre company Antic Disposition set out to produce Shakespeare’s Henry V. Ambitiously, the company was hoping to set the play in some of England’s most beautiful cathedrals. And boy, what a good thing the cathedrals agreed…

Images courtesy of Scott Rylander

Henry V’s captivating production will almost make you forget the beauty of your surroundings, as it takes you in and out of time using a well-thought-out bracketed scenario.

France, 1915. A British soldier helps a French soldier reach the hospital. To show his appreciation, the British soldiers gifts him his most prized possession: a copy of Shakespeare’s play Henry V, which, ironically, tells the story of how the British, against all odds, defeated the French in the battle of Agincourt, in 1415. Nurses and soldiers decide to set up their own production of the play whilst they recover from their wounds.

Hosted by beautiful Southwark Cathedral, the stage runs along the cathedral’s nave; it is long and narrow, and on each side sits the audience. Little more than a few boxes were needed to set the scene in a hospital, and objects soldiers and nurses could find in the hospital — Red Cross boxes, cake tins, bandages — were intelligently used as crowns and other props to create the setting for their own play. The balance was just right between the minimalistic décor and the monumental space we were in.

The cast, making great use of the space, is so engaging that the audience almost forgets that they are sitting in one of London’s most beautiful cathedrals. But just as you are about to forget, they find a way to make you remember where you are: as the soldiers turn to God, the beautiful stained glass windows get lit up, or an off-stage battle compels you to turn 90° and admire the cathedral’s choir.

For a 21st century play set in the 20th century re-enacting a 15th-century tale, the play effortlessly takes you in and out of the soldier’s rendition of Shakespeare back to 1915. Effortlessly, but emotionally, particularly when, a gun to his head in the meta-play, Adam Philip’s character, unable to tell real from fake, is struck by post-traumatic stress disorder. This use of the bracketing scenario is careful thought out.

It becomes of great importance when the fake battle of Agincourt is about to start, a scene which would have been difficult to render with such a small cast. As soldiers prepare for combat, an off-set bombardment takes them — and us — right back to 1915. There ensues a song — there are a few musical numbers throughout, courtesy of AE Housman ­— and the cast seamlessly moves on to the next scene.

The production takes you across eras of English and French History, making great use of its Franco-British cast. Despite dealing with difficult themes — war and PTSD — it will make you laugh for using a butter knife, a mop and a wooden spoon as swords. But after an enjoyable two hours, like in the play, reality eventually catches up and it’s back to the London underground. Slightly less majestic.

You can find out more about the production here:

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