An ingenious setting gives this touring production its edge.
For Antic Disposition – a company which tours its Shakespearean productions in south west France each year – Henry V was always going to be sticky, dealing as it does with the trouncing of the French at Agincourt in 1415. Its portrayal of a blustering, arrogant Dauphin, and a powerful army that’s brought low by a heroic band of brothers who begin the fight outnumbered and exhausted, make it scarcely the most tactful play to present.
Artistic directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero have skilfully wriggled round this problem by setting the action in a First World War field hospital, where wounded French and British allied troops pass the time during convalescence by performing the play, which happens to be the only English book handy. They take their time to set up this premise, and with music composed by Christopher Peake (set to the poems of AE Houseman) ringing up to the magnificent roof of Southwark Cathedral, the opening sequence has a captivating resonance.
The cast are also a mix of French and English actors, which works beautifully in the case of Princess Katherine, played with grace, spirit and good humour by Floriane Andersen.
Rhys Bevan is a stout-hearted Henry, but while he makes the most of his rousing speeches, this an edgy performance from a king who doesn’t seem to have found his full confidence yet. There’s welcome support from Callum Coates who brings authority and gravitas to Exeter, and Andrew Hodges as a passionate Fluellen.
The problem with this vaulted, echoing setting is that some of the less crisp speakers can’t always be heard – or even understood – at times, and there are occasional struggles with the lighter-hearted scenes that allow the momentum to flag.
Yet the company has created a genuinely innovative approach to the play in its setting, its stirring music and in its clear parallels between the plight of common soldiers in the 15th century, and those in the trenches of the 20th.
Cathedral tour until 22 February 2017