Saturday, April 2, 2016

'Henry V' at Middle Temple Hall, 1st April 2016

It's real easy to heroically "Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!' when danger is at arm's length. It's considerably less easy to do so when your lungs are filling with muddy water, when those "limbs were made in England" have been blown off by a shell or when your mind shatters into a thousand pieces.

At the heart of Antic Disposition's staging of Henry V is the disconnect between the nobility of patriotism and its bloody consequences. So, we find Henry V being staged in a field hospital in World War I, performed by injured French and British soldiers. 

It's a smart bit of framing: the propaganda campaign that urged young men to fight for God, King and country has roots in Shakespeare's oft-quoted vision of Britain in its finest military hour, from the deification of English bulldog masculinity to the shaming of those that don't want to fight ("And gentlemen in England now abed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here / And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks").

On top of that, there's disquieting links between the two wars. The battle at Agincourt is notorious for the part terrain and weather played in the English victory. Essentially, the heavily armoured French nobility became bogged down in thick mud, quickly becoming so tired that they were exhausted when they finally met the English. When the second wave of the French attack arrived they found themselves stood atop the suffocating corpses of those that went before. The knights were crushed or drowned in the mud - those few that had the energy to lift their weapons picked off by lightly clothed English longbowmen.

It's a hellish vision of blood and mud - carnage echoed 500 years later in the charnel houses of Ypres, the Somme and Verdun. Understanding this, Antic Disposition does a fairly straight run through of the play while simultaneously critiquing it. The production contrasts Shakespeare's portrait of the stalwart English soldier with a shell-shocked, screaming and drooling Tommy being restrained by two nurses, we first meet the man who'll play our King blinded by mustard gas and the triumphalist conclusion of Henry V is immediately and soberingly undercut by orders to that these players must return to the front lines.

Piece by piece, this interpretation dismantles the puffed up militarism that gently airbrushes the miseries of war. The ongoing centenary of the Great War is crammed full of language like "noble sacrifice" and those that "laid down their lives". It all sounds dreamily peaceful; a long way away from the first hand accounts by the soldiers in the trenches, perhaps best summarised by Wilfred Owen's iconic: "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori." 

The connecting of the historical dots is aided by the backdrop of Middle Temple Hall. Dead kings imperiously gaze down from oil portraits and the high walls are ominously guarded by suits of Roundhead Armor. The innate historicity of the place seeps through into the production, the panelled walls, stained glass windows and ornate ceiling reflecting the sense of stolid permanence that suffuses the play. 

On top of that it's a beautifully concisely designed focused production. The set is minimal; confined to a couple of wooden boxes and national flags, and the costuming is period-accurate military and nursing uniforms. It's easy to half-ass this stuff and still look good, so I was impressed with the subtle detailing that distinguishes each character's costume. Also of note are the effective ways that the production within the production smartly uses whatever's to hand for their props, most effectively using cut up tin cans for the King's crowns.

Performance-wise it's similarly excellent - with particular credit to Freddie Stewart's onion-layered Henry. He's constantly changing gears depending on his surroundings, variously commanding, terrified, horrified, playful, romantic or confident. Maintaining a through-line of character in these many varied scenes is a tough job, especially when you factor in the further layer that Stewart is playing an anonymous Tommy playing King Henry.

A performance of this quality firmly anchors the play, though he's ably supported by memorable turns from James Lavender, Stephen Lloyd and James Murfitt, who provide texture and humour in showing us the reactions of the 'commoners'. Also excellent is Floriane Anderson's Princess Katherine, who succeeds in the romantic high-wire act of falling for a man who's already demanding her hand in marriage as one of his terms of invasion.

It's a fine production, with a clear-minded, well communicated perspective on history, politics and the central text. Antic Disposition are further elevated by the locations they're performing in. Middle Temple Hall is one of the most atmospheric performance spaces for Shakespeare in London, though I admit I'm slightly jealous of those that'll get to see this in Winchester and Salisbury Cathedral. Best of all, it's beautifully timed to provide a complex analysis of English self-mythologising; exploring the cultural weight of Shakespeare and the impact of the Great War sensitively yet critically.


Henry V is at Middle Temple Hall until 6th April, then touring the country. Details and tickets here.

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