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Theatre Review Affecting anthem for doomed youth

LYNNE WALSH recommends a WWI update of Shakespeare's Henry V

Henry V
Manchester Cathedral/Touring

 

SOMETIMES there are moments in theatre when all key elements coalesce and something extraordinary happens. Perfect casting, creative use of some fine poetry, music to melt the hardest heart and a clever treatment of one of the world's best known plays — all fuse together to create this spine-tingling production of Henry V.

 

The grandeur of Manchester Cathedral helps too. Antic Disposition loves to perform in spaces where there's history in every stone and this run of Shakespeare's play takes them to 10, culminating at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.

 

Transposing the story of the Battle of Agincourt from 1415 to 1915 may seem a liberty, but it's one that pays off. The audience is introduced to both French and English soldiers, all blinded by gas and led to a military hospital and it's a conceit that adds depth to a piece which can often seem to celebrate the slaughter of young men.

 

The English Tommy and the French poilu end up together, bossed and comforted by the same nurses, and their similarities not their differences are revealed. It brings a new perspective to this “band of brothers.”

 

The risk that melancholy can become mawkish in this tale of doomed youth is avoided by direction of perfect pitch and exquisite balance from Ben Horslen and John Risebero, original compositions from George Butterworth and assured musical direction from Christopher Peake.

 

It seems sacrilegious, though quite apt, that a scene between bishops reminds us of their venal motives as they fan the flames of war, securing their land whilst creating martyrs of young lads. Plotting murder in a cathedral — it's chilling stuff.

 

There are a couple of flaws, though one is probably Shakespeare's. At the conclusion, Princess Catherine de Valois (Aude Le Pape) and Henry (Nathan Hamilton) do their very best as wooer and wooed but it's still incredible — lovers of the TV series Upstart Crow might visualise the Bard writing his denouement and realising: “Damn, I forgot the love scene!”

 

It's not vital that audiences understand any French, though it does matter in a few scenes and while the acoustics of this magnificent venue challenges the cast, those pitfalls are largely avoided by playing in the round as much as possible.

 

Hamilton inhabits the central role with aplomb, with his youth a reminder that this monarch was struggling with pressing duty, fragile status, failed diplomacy and the expectations of his mainly devoted subjects, while Charles Neville gives that grand comic turn Pistol more than daftness, especially in his reluctant, sweet farewell to his wife.

 

Scott Howland takes on three roles and in none of them is he less less than excellent, particularly as the cheeky and pugnacious lad Pym, emblematic of those who will not grow old.

 

Tours until November 16, details: anticdisposition.co.uk.

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