Did you see Peter Jackon’s film They Shall Not Grow Old? In it The Lord of the Rings director colourised old film footage from World War I… the outcome was startling. Suddenly history seemed brought to life. Viewers were amazed how suddenly relatable the images of the young soldiers became. One commented: “The faces of the teenage soldiers… could be those of their great grandsons shopping for trainers today.”
How to make war relateable, to really understand the suffering of the participants and raw grief felt by the bereaved, seems to grow more beyond us the further away we are from those historic events.
What this tremendous version of Henry V by theatre company Antic Disposition does, however, is to ace that most tricky of time-conquering tasks.
Directed by Ben Horslen and John Risebero it tells the story of Henry V as a play within the play. The drama opens in France, 1915, presumably not too far from the frontline trenches. A French soldier helps a young English private, who has been gassed, bringing him to the female nurses to look after him. As a thank you the Englishman gives the Frenchman his most treasured possession – a copy of Henry V. After a bit of misunderstanding (at Henry V’s setting of the Battle Agincourt, 1415, the now allies were of course then enemies). The patients decide to perform Shakespeare’s great war tale. The private is crowned as the young King Henry, and the Bard’s tale commences.
What follows is the most impressive, gut-wrenching, sob-inducing production of Henry V imaginable.
Performed in the traverse; with ambient lighting and the acoustics of the church making the verse positively sing, the atmosphere is further conjured by the authenticity of the costumes and props.
The words of poet AE Housman are set to music by various composers and, most notably, music director Christopher Peake, and are used to punctuate Shakespeare’s plot. At various dramatic points the cast perform choral counterpoints, given the sometimes clunky military tale fresh life, emotion and poetic beauty.
Not only do the WWI ‘actor soldiers’ seem colourised, but their forebears, from 500 years ago, also come to life.
When Mistress Quickly says goodbye to Pistol, Nim and Bardolph as they head off to war it becomes as relatable as a mother waving off her lad in 1914. It’s all overwhelming emotional, a stab in the heart felt through centuries.
The audience is literally inches from the actors throughout – the action is real in-your-face stuff, and not for one second is not entirely believeable. It is unflinching in its delivery, the clarity sublime. The standard of the acting was easily every bit as good – if not better – than one might see at the RSC. There was heart and soul in every actor’s performance. Nathan Hamilton as Henry V bowled me over – the tears and the grit so real – I imagine this is how seeing Kenneth Branagh in his pomp over the road was like.
In particular the love scene between him and Katherine (a sublime Aude Le Pape) was utterly mesmerizing.
Corny to say, but surely Shakespeare would have approved… In fact there was one particularly arresting bit when the great playwright seemed involved. As the opposing forces clash they turn and face the nave, where his grave is, a trick of lighting flash and canon booms make it seem like that is where the warring enemy is located.
Clever technology and smoke and mirrors may be involved, but this felt real and profound. Do go.