Henry V at Southwark Cathedral, SE1

reviewed for The Times, 8 February 2017

Kate Maltby Henry V Antic Disposition


You would be forgiven for forgetting, but 2015 marked 600 years since Henry V’s longbow-led victory at the Battle of Agincourt. More conspicuously, 2016 marked 100 years since the Battle of the Somme. Over the past few years Antic Disposition have honoured the conjunction of anniversaries by touring this First World War setting of Shakespeare’s Henry V around French market towns and English cathedrals. Now they’re back with a circular tour of north and east England, starting and ending at Southwark Cathedral in London.

If you thought a First World War setting of this war play could be maudlin, you’d be right. Ben Horslen and John Risebero’s production lays on the pathos with a trowel — there’s a stilted framing device in which the nurses tending to a group of French and English soldiers decide to stage Shakespeare’s play. The point is obvious. The French and English, once enemies, are now allies; slaughter was bloody and futile on both occasions. Yet there’s plenty in Shakespeare’s language already about the barbarity of war for this approach to offer any new revelations.

If only we got to hear that language. Antic Disposition slash the text brutally; we lose the Southampton Plot, much of Henry’s Total War speech at Harfleur, and MacMorris’s ribaldry with Fluellen. Rhys Bevan’s Henry has a commanding public-schoolboy earnestness and an unflinching moral courage. He is even prepared to execute Bardolph, his criminal old friend, himself. Yet there’s little real interiority. Henry’s guilt-stricken prayer — “. . . think not upon the fault my father made in compassing the crown” – is not bitter concession so much as statement of fact.

Where the concept pays off is in the bewitching choreography of interludes and battle scenes. English boys sign up with the Recruiting Officer, first to the Chorus’s prologue — “Now thrive the armourers” — then to George Butterworth’s musical setting of AE Housman’s The Lads in their Hundreds, which describes a parallel Victorian scene. Christopher Peake’s settings of further Housman poems add charm.

There was great pleasure in watching all this in Southwark Cathedral in the shadow of Shakespeare’s Globe — a slab in the choir marks the burial spot of his brother, Edmond. It’s just very sixth-formish.