A Kingdom for a Stage

The young King Henry V has just assumed the throne and is planning to invade parts of France. Then 500 years later wounded First World War British and French troops recuperate in a hospital. Welcome to Henry V with an entirely new spin – a play within a play in the historic surroundings of our Grade I listed Bath Abbey, says Emma Clegg.

The chorus prologue of Shakespeare’s Henry V announces a story with huge fields, grand battles, and fighting kings. There is an early instruction to the audience to see the small wooden stage as the fields of France, so to imagine, “a kingdom for a stage”. This premise is one that theatre audiences are well used to, but in a new production of Henry V at Bath Abbey the imagination requires a further stretch because the wooden stage is replaced by the narrow space between the choir stalls in the western part of the Chancel and the choir stalls seat the audience of 140.

The theatre company Antic Disposition, set up by directors John Risebero and Ben Horslen, specialises in classic plays and stories, with a particular emphasis on the works of Shakespeare, and visually striking productions in historic buildings and spectacular non-theatre spaces. Recent productions include The Comedy of Errors in Gray’s Inn Hall in London, the location of the play’s first recorded performance in 1594; Richard III in Leicester Cathedral, where the King was recently reinterred; and Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet in the 12th-century Temple Church in London.

John, who trained as a theatre designer, explains the lure of these unusual venues and how a minimal amount of staging is required. “When you are in a space like this you don’t want to hide it in any way. We rely a lot on the buildings to create the atmosphere so we very rarely use a ‘set’. Sometimes the historic connections are extraordinary. In Salisbury Cathedral just across from the area we used as a stage is the tomb of a knight who fought at the Battle of Agincourt. In Worcester Cathedral we had King John’s tomb pretty much in the middle of the stage, and in Norwich Cathedral one of the knights mentioned in the play is buried in the building. These connections give it all real resonance.”

The original Antic Disposition production of Henry V was conceived in 2015, the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt. When planning the play John and Ben were struck by the fact that in 1415 France and England were mortal enemies but 500 years later in 1915, the two nations were again fighting in the fields of northern France, but this time as allies. They came up with the idea of setting the production in 1915 and basing it on the premise of the two armies coming together to tell the story of their shared history. So it’s performed as a play within a play, a device that Shakespeare used himself, set in a First World War hospital in 1915, 500 years after the Battle of Agincourt. “The concept is that there is a group of British soldiers and a group of French soldiers in this hospital, recuperating having fought on the front line, and as part of their process of recovery they decide to stage their own production of Henry V, so they are allies in the same hospital telling this story of 500 years before”, says John.

Henry V – a little under three hours in its full form – in this production is cut down to two hours, a length that Antic Disposition likes to work with for their productions: “A lot of people were put off Shakespeare at school so we try and make it as accessible as it possibly can be.”

The elongated stage area does provide some logistical challenges as the audience on each side may at times see the back of a head delivering a key speech, but being so close to the action is a thrilling compensation. The cast of 12 includes British and French actors and the costumes are set in the First World War with French and British uniforms. “We use very simple props – most made from materials that the soldiers might have found in the hospital. Henry wears a crown made out of a tin can, and bishops wear mitres made out of cardboard boxes with a red cross on the front.”

Extra poignancy is brought to the production by the use of original songs inspired by the poetry of AE Housman, in a powerful tribute to the young soldiers caught up in conflicts five centuries apart: “Some are hymn-like and reflective; others follow more of a First World War marching genre,” says John.

“Many of the versions of Henry V over the years have been overly patriotic – the 1944 Laurence Olivier film was made as a morale-boosting production at the tail end of the Second World War. Ours is more of a celebration of international collaboration and working together, and about the horrors of war.” These are both themes with heightened relevance right now, so it’s time to take your place in the choristers’ stalls.

Antic Disposition’s production of Henry V is at Bath Abbey from 9–14 May at 7.30pm. bathshakespeare.co.uk

Photography credit: Scott Rylander