(Antic Disposition at Temple Church, 25 August 2015)
One of the great things about living in London is the chance to see smaller theatre companies putting on plays in unusual spaces, and this was a great example. I’ve been on Antic Disposition’s mailing list since I was bowled over by their magnificent Tempest in Middle Temple Hall some years ago, and when I heard they were taking on Henry V in the evocative spaces of Temple Church, I couldn’t resist.
This ancient building was once the home of the Knights Templar in London and its early medieval floorplan was circular, recalling the shape of the Temple in Jerusalem. With its later nave leading off to the east, it’s a splendid building: the early rounded section at the end is the site of several burials including that of William Marshal. I’d only been to the church a couple of times before and it isn’t always easy to get into Temple full-stop, so I was very keen to have the chance to see it out-of-hours in this rather special way.
Antic Disposition’s production is dominated by a very original framing device. The action begins, rather disconcertingly, in World War I. An injured British soldier is helped in by a French comrade and treated by a couple of fluttering French nurses. The British soldier eases a small book out of his pocket and gives it to the Frenchman; the Frenchman, confused, asks what it is, and one of the nurses explains it’s a play, about Henry V and about Agincourt. The Frenchman erupts – is this an insult? – but the British soldier tries to soothe him. It’s meant to be a gift. A thank-you present. More French and British soldiers wander onto the stage: the book is passed around and then, with the British at one end of the long raised walkway between the church’s pews, and the French at the other, each nation beneath their flags, the play begins.
And so the idea is that this is a diversion, performed during a lull in the fighting, with French soldiers taking the French roles (I initially believed that they actually were French: their accents were remarkable. Halfway through, however, I realised that the French were doubling up in English roles, and their names in the cast list were distinctly English. Great credit should go to them for the accents). There’s a bit of jostling and laughing: the young soldier playing Henry is given a crown made out of shrapnel or gun-mental, twisted into a circlet; the same is true for the French officer playing their king. Throughout the play there’s a charming Heath-Robinson quality about props, a creativity imposed on this cast who are stuck in the trenches. Costumes are those of the First World War; and when the French herald brings the Dauphin’s little gift to Henry’s court – the box of tennis balls – it’s actually a cardboard box full of rolled bandages.
Such additional layers, imposed on a Shakespeare play, sometimes work but sometimes don’t. Here without a shadow of a doubt it worked, triumphantly. Indeed – and spoilers follow, so please beware – the framing device offered an almost unbearable sense of poignancy that gave the play a punch and power that I haven’t found in it before. Initially however it just seemed like a bit of fun and horseplay: a chance to refract the story of Agincourt through a more recent meeting of the two nations, in much the same area of France (it’s said at one point in the play that Henry ‘has passed the river Somme‘, a line I usually don’t even notice, but which in this context jolted me into awareness). But I rapidly came to understand the power of the setting.
Antic Disposition are remarkably talented at adding music to their plays. I remember their Tempest had some beautiful music and here they frequently added in snatches of World War I songs. I don’t know if they’re original, or written especially for the performance, but they were spot on: I suspect they may be originals, because the company have released them on a CD. Sometimes these songs were used to give us a glimpse, for a moment, through the play back into its framing narrative, and on one or two occasions they almost dragged your heart out of your chest.
For example, the comic characters don’t normally do it for me – I can take or leave Bardolph, Pistol, Nym – but here they became ‘everyman’. As Henry’s forces gather to head off to France, we were shown a line of laughing chaps in flat caps and braces, singing rousing marching songs as they lined up in front of an officer to sign up and receive their folded uniforms. And then, as Bardolph, Pistol and Nym – and the Boy – bid farewell to Mistress Quickly, I was almost overcome by the sudden poignancy of it: these men in their First World War uniforms, saying goodbye to London and ready to ship for France. The framing device brought a whole new level to the tale.
And the same was true at the end of the first half (again, spoilers, please beware). Here Bardolph was dragged forth for judgement and Henry, torn between his duty and his old friend, chose duty and grabbed a revolver and held it at his head. The soldier playing Bardolph (played in turn by James Murfitt), shaking like a leaf, went suddenly into a fit of shell-shock – the actors snapped instantly from play into framing narrative and the nurses rushed on to try to calm him. ‘Henry’ watched in horror and shame, realising that this play has a reality beyond itself. And we the audience realised that too. As the lights blacked out, shortly after that moment, I was in tears and I wasn’t the only one. When the lights came up for the interval, several faces in the audience were pale with shock. It was superbly handled.
Thus too at Agincourt, where Henry’s stupendous speech is followed by a rousing cry to charge – British at one end of the walkway, French at the other, with rifles primed, ready to rush into the throng – but as they began to charge, there was a huge eruption and crackle of light in the rounded end of the church. Again, ‘reality’ imposed on the play. The soldiers, forgetting their mock battle, turned and stared in fear at this bombardment (as did we, the audience: their alarm was so palpable that I noticed several people craning round the columns to try to see). And for a moment, again, their concentration was lost, and yet they wrenched themselves back into the play. I realised then that, in the framing narrative, the play was becoming a coping mechanism for these men – an increasingly desperate attempt to create a new reality, where speeches were noble and victories were great and all ended with a graceful truce.
And here (again I warn of spoilers) the closing scene of Henry V was delightful. Henry and Katherine were wonderful together: the wooing scene left me melting slightly with its finely-balanced romantic wit, and I thought I was going to finish the play with a grin on my face. No bad thing. But then, even as the actors celebrated their completion of the play, a man came on stage right with a telegram for their commanding officer. He opened it, read it – all very quietly, so you might not have noticed – and then said, ‘Fall the men in.’ Oh God, I thought, no… The young nurse playing Katherine began to cry; the soldier playing Henry began whispering, ‘I’ll come back, I’ll come back,’ and as the men formed up and presented arms – the French marching off one way and the British, singing another of their falsely cheery songs, off another, I found myself with damp eyes again. I’d fallen absolutely into the false sense of security they wanted.
I suppose I should say a word or two about the actors, but I have nothing but praise for them too. Freddie Stewart made a very believable Henry (watch out for him: he’s going places, I’m sure). He was young enough to have the necessary uncertainties and qualms, but he was also able to assume a calm gravitas and command that made you believe he was a force to be reckoned with. The scene where Henry prays on the night before Agincourt is always an interesting one to watch, because it gives us a glimpse of the young king’s crippling inner fears, and Stewart did that beautifully – snapping back into the persona of the king when he’s discovered by his uncle, and hiding his nerves behind irritation; before going on to give a lovely rendition of the St Crispin’s Day speech.
I can’t go through the entire cast, which grieves me, but suffice it to say they all performed splendidly: the greatest accolade one can give to a production like this is to say that the ensemble was so strong that no one stood out as being a weak link. Everyone was excellent. And again I must praise the accents of those playing the French – Dean Riley’s arrogant, strutting little Dauphin; Marius Hesper’s Montjoy; Louise Templeton’s Alice (she also played Mistress Quickly); and Floriane Andersen (whom I suspect probably actually is French, but correct me if I’m wrong), who was brilliant as the lively princess Katherine. Great praise to all, and also to the directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero, whom I presume are responsible for the stroke of genius about the setting.
The most incredible thing was that there weren’t more people in the audience, partly because the church is so small. But I say again: add Antic Disposition to your watchlists. Admittedly I’ve only seen two of their shows, but both of those have been sophisticated, articulate and creative productions which rank among my theatrical highlights. Unfortunately Henry V only has a few more days left to run: it finishes on 5 September, but if you can get to Temple Church before then, please go to see it and support this superb little company. You will not regret it. I only wish it were touring the country a bit, so that those outside of London might have a chance to savour it.