“HOW lovely that it was introduced by the placenta” is not the quotation I was expecting to be uppermost in my mind as I drove home from such a wonderful, imaginative, fulfilling, beautifully crafted production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays in one of England’s finest buildings, but that was what I overheard in the Gents in the interval, and it will long remain in my memory.
The play was actually introduced, quite appropriately, by the Precentor, the person responsible for the planning of services and music at the cathedral, and his short prayer at the end of his talk reminded us that we were in a house of prayer, again, highly fitting for the subject matter of the play, as Henry speaks about all the chantries and poor people he has built and paid to pray for the soul of his father and uncle, both of whom were also kings of England.
As soon as the prayer had finished, wounded soldiers from the Great War walked past, and a few stopped on the traverse stage for a rest, one helping the other, and this led to the wounded French and English, fighting together against a common enemy, to put on a production of Henry V, with the soldiers playing their respective countrymen on either side of the battle of Agincourt, some 500 years earlier, in 1415.
Only the action and words of the play were from 1415 – the sentiment, emotion, costume, and much of the intervening drama were all very much grounded in the more recent war, and in a stroke of genius, words by A E Housman are set to original music played and sung live by the cast and composer Christopher Peake. These songs give an extra, deeper, more accessible nature to the famous play, and open up layers of connection over the five centuries that separate the action of the two wars.
In two places the drama is at its height, ready for conflict in 1415, and we are brought back to earth with stark reminders of the reality of war. Towards the end of the first half, one of the actors, staring at a pistol, collapses with shell shock, forcing his comrades to break out of the play within a play and soothe him with song – a beautiful setting of White In The Moon from A Shropshire Lad. Later in the play, as the battle of Agincourt itself is beginning, the soldiers hear shells falling outside their hospital and pause to remember.
These two moments alone are reason enough to see this production, but there are so many more, from the beautiful singing, clever weaving of plot back and forth over the centuries, delightful verse-speaking and ensemble work from such accomplished actors, every single one of them, humour, pathos, and the opportunity to be so close to the action – just three rows of seats on each side of the long traverse means that you spend a lot of time gazing across at fellow audience members, delighting in their smiles, their sadness, and behind and above them the wonderful fabric of such a beautiful building which was completed over 150 years before even the battle of Agincourt.
This is wonderful production of the play, and has already been on quite a journey, starting in France, spending time in Middle Temple Hall in London, and now wending its way around the Cathedrals, Abbeys, Priories and Churches of Britain. It’s almost sold out in Sherborne Abbey on Saturday, so catch it at Bristol Cathedral early next week, then Gloucester and the Bard’s final resting place in Stratford.