BWW Review: HENRY V, Middle Temple Hall, March 30 2016
A British soldier, choking with the effects of World War I mustard gas, is carried into a field hospital by an enemy Frenchman to be tended by French nurses. He gives the only possession he has about him, a well-thumbed book, to his rescuer who, when he finds it is Shakespeare's Henry V - the tale of the English vanquisher of the French at Agincourt - rails against his foe. But, with a few mots justes from the nurses, he accepts the gift and soon, after a plaintive AE Housman poem of lost youth, the patients, British and French, are staging the play.
As framing devices go, it's a good one, linking conflicts separated by time, if not by place nor cause, and it allows a 20th-century sensibility to seep through the events of the 15th century, helped by regular verses from Housman and some of the best costumes and props seen in fringe theatre. The "band of brothers" becomes a universal group, found in any conflict; the burden of leadership one that faces kings and their ministers at all times; the solution to war eventually found in love, something that we can only hope stretches far into the future.
Antic Disposition re-stage their production of last summer (reviewed here) in the extraordinary setting of Middle Temple Hall, a space almost quivering with history, from its claim to be the venue for the first staging of Twelfth Night to its portraits of monarchs crowding its walls. It would be easy for a less accomplished company to drown in such surroundings, but this one rises to the challenge.
Though there are some new faces amongst the cast, Freddie Stewart is back as Henry. If anything, he's even better this time round, a boy becoming a man as he wrestles with the choices before him. Once set on war, he sees his soldiers as individuals, men with wives and children, who will pay a heavy price for the settling of royal quarrels. There's a tenderness in his manner with his brothers, an early sight of the coming of concepts like human rights and government via an executive - shown as much through Stewart's gentleness as through his setpiece speeches. It's a nuanced performance that eschews grand gestures for psychological sensitivity and a delight to see a second time.
He gets good support from an ensemble cast in which Floriane Andersen is excellent as Katherine, his French bride-to-be, particularly in the awkward courtship scene and while learning English with Louise Templeton's Alice. There's some decent comic cuts from Pistol and co, but the best laughs come from Dean Riley's Dauphin, channelling some of the spirit of Kenneth Williams in mannerisms and looks.
This production visits some venues as spectacular as its London home on its April tour - I'd advise you not to miss it.
Photo Scott Rylander