“CAN this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” the Chorus asks of the Elizabethan audience watching Shakespeare’s Henry V, urging them to suspend disbelief and be convinced that the Battle of Agincourt is being enacted before them on the bare stage.
It absolutely can with Antic Disposition, a company of French and English actors which has been taking its startling production of Henry V into eight of the country’s finest cathedrals to mark the 600th anniversary of Agincourt and the ongoing centenary of the First World War. The master stroke at Southwell Minster was to play out the drama in the Quire, a long, narrow, adversarial space with the French and English camps at opposing ends and the audience seated like spectators at the battle.
It was an extraordinary and curiously holy experience. The play opens in a First World War military hospital treating both English and French soldiers wounded at the Front. The shy offering of a battered copy of Shakespeare’s play by an English to a French soldier, at first rebuffed, triggers an enactment of the drama that is an entente cordiale in itself, stirring all kinds of emotions at this particular time in the country’s history.
It lends itself beautifully to the First World War context, particularly in the horrendous loss of life at Agincourt, an estimated 600 on the English side, but up to 10,000 on the French. Kings and knights voice lofty ideals — Henry’s magnificent speeches are delivered from the shoulders of his men — but is is the foot soldiers like Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, and Fluellen who pay the price.
Sung words of A. E. Housman, many from A Shropshire Lad, punctuate the action and are so robustly English. You saw stricken faces and could have heard a pin drop after the soldiers had sung “The Day of Battle”, the poem that begins, “For I hear the bugle blow, To call me where I would not go” and ends, “Stand and fight and see your slain And take the bullet in your brain.”
And in this soaring ecclesiastical space — the Dean reflected in conversation that the Minster had been standing for 300 years before Agincourt — you were somehow called even more decisively to reflect on the play’s big themes of power and accountability, nationality, war and peace. References to God sprang out from the text and demanded fresh attention. The kneeling Henry prays before the battle, “How Thou pleaseth, God, dispose the day”; credits God with the result; and calls for a Non Nobis and a Te Deum.
This is the unique power of the setting. Drama started in the Church. It is a marvel and an inspiration when it is brought home in this way.
The production’s tour of cathedrals continues at Ely tonight, Norwich tomorrow, and Southwark from Monday to Wednesday.
More information and bookings at www.anticdisposition.co.uk; or phone 0333 666 3366 (TicketSource; booking fee applies).