Antic Disposition’s next stop on its ‘Henry V’ tour saw them at the stunning Manchester Cathedral. Manchester Cathedral was, coincidentally, given its charter by Henry V.
The stage was a narrow corridor with parallel seating along two sides. The uniqueness of the Antic Disposition’s take on ‘Henry V’ lies in the play-within-a-play element. The performance begins with two groups of World War One soldiers, one French, one British, taken away from the front due to injuries. A young British private’s only book is a copy of ‘Henry V’ and the soldiers decide to perform it.
Nathan Hamilton was commanding on stage as the title character. He portrayed the powerful, self-assured side of the young king alongside his vulnerability, doing both equally impressively. Having interviewed Hamilton, it was clear to see the work put in to create these layers, as well as the power difference of a low-ranking private playing a king. The highly anticipated ‘Once more unto the breach’ monologue did not disappoint. Dramatic lighting and amazing acoustics, as well as Hamilton being lifted onto the men’s shoulders, created an impressive moment.
Directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero reminded the audience of the play-within-a-play element in powerful ways that didn’t interfere with the integrity of the Shakespeare. The end of the first act saw the execution of Bardolph interrupted by the soldier playing the part experiencing an episode of ‘shell shock’ (or PTSD). This was artfully performed by James Murfitt, as the pain and fear of being shot transformed into his fear of the present dangers of the war.
Aude Le Pape, playing a French nurse in the World War One context, then became Princess Catherine in the context of ‘Henry V’. She had great chemistry with Hamilton, making their interaction where he asks for her hand in marriage highly entertaining.
The musical interludes with the beautiful words of AE Housman mostly replaced dialogue in the World War One scenes, it was a great addition to the performance. The vocals (accompanied by live instruments played by members of the cast) were not perfect but they were consistently genuine and this really added to the atmosphere of the performance. The most powerful song by far, was the Agincourt Carol (with music by Christopher Peake). Every note was powerful and rousing, a visceral atmosphere felt by the whole room.
Antic Disposition first performed their version of ‘Henry V’ in 2015. Horslen and Risebero have clearly worked tirelessly on all the touches on this iconic show. It is beautifully conceived, from the minimalist set and period props to the subtleties of the wedding bouquet being poppies. Just as the audience was immersed in the wedding of Henry and Catherine, the soldiers were called back to the front. This was a beautiful juxtaposition of fiction and reality within the performance. It was deeply emotional to see these men who had ‘forgotten’ the war in their acting returning to those horrors.
‘Henry V’ was beautifully performed with obvious skill in the direction. The ability to adapt this show to so many incredible cathedrals and make it relatable to changing audiences, is impeccable; everyone should see it.
‘Henry V’ is touring until Friday 16th November.