1915. A group of wounded soldiers, French and English, arrive at a military field hospital in France. One of them has a copy of Henry V. They decide to pass their time by staging a Shakespearean play. The action moves back 500 years to the fields of France.
Antic Disposition specialises in staging plays in non-theatrical spaces, often great cathedrals and churches. The company, now based in both London and Bath, has moved into the Abbey of its new home city, seated its intimate audience in the choir stalls and created a runway acting area between them, looking out over the newly-cleared wide open spaces and memorials of the Nave.
Henry V is properly described as an iconic play, with its speeches about happy few bands of brothers heading again into the breach.
For those of us who don’t have military family backgrounds, war and its reality are purposefully vague. Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is just too close to be able to ignore.
Perhaps that’s why Antic Disposition’s acclaimed production, now at Bath Abbey, is quite so shattering. Devised for the 2015 First World War commemorations, the production has toured the UK and France, leaving moved and stunned audiences in its mesmerising wake. In 2022 its impact is even more powerful.
If you think you know the play, think again.
A dozen actors take on 23 roles in this ensemble piece, weaving together the characters across the centuries and involving the audience in a visceral understanding of the realities of war, stripped of nationalistic bragging and ceremony. The proximity of the action peels layers from the language, creating what I am sure will be indelible images.
Christopher Peake has composed new music for the poems of AE Housman, poignantly sung by the company.
It seems almost trite to “compare” this production to the many others I have seen. It is outstanding, in the true meaning of the word … important, chilling, and horribly, ordinarily real.
See it if you can get a ticket.