REVIEW: HENRY V (Southwark Cathedral) ★★★★★

This is an exciting but original production, sometimes brutal, sometimes funny but always enthralling. The awesome Southwark Cathedral surroundings alone are worth the trip and the accompanying music is a delight. Marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt Along with the hundredth anniversary of the First World War this production is one to see.

Performed by a combined cast of British and French actors, this extraordinary production celebrates the love/hate relationship between the two nations – from the Hundred Years War, to today.

The story takes place in a military field hospital, close to the town of Agincourt, during the First World War where British and French soldiers recover, in friendship, side by side. A British soldier gives a French soldier a gift of the only thing he possesses, a copy of William Shakespeare’s Henry V. At first the French soldier feels insulted at being offered this most patriotic, and anti-French of Shakespeare’s plays. But when they explain that it is the only possession that the young British soldier has, it is finally accepted with good grace.

The soldiers then decide to pass away some time and to keep their spirits up, to perform the play with the British patients playing King Henry V’s soldiers and the French soldiers playing the French King Charles VI’s men. The nurses play the female rolls such as Mistress Nell Quickly, the French Princess Katherine and her servant, Alice.

This is a play within a play, which is an almost typical Shakespearean device. The play has humour, heart and some of the greatest speeches ever written including the uplifting “once more unto the breach” before the French surrender of Harfleur and the “band of brothers” speech before the battle of Agincourt. It shows the deaths of thousands of French soldiers against a mere handful of British. It shows an honourable fight without unnecessary slaughter and without looting. It shows the defeat of an over confident French army and a subsequent peace made good by the marriage of Katherine, the King of France’s daughter and Henry.

At the beginning of their play, Henry is persuaded by the church to invade France to support his claim to the French throne. He raises an army, crosses to France and speedily takes the town of Harfleur. He then marches on to the seaport of Calais. On their way they are intercepted by a massive French army near the town of Agincourt.

Southwark Cathedral seems a most fitting, atmospheric venue. The set just comprises a few boxes placed in the nave, which delineates the extent of the stage. The nave is very tight for what is a large cast. The audience sit on folding chairs which are very close to the cast.

Setting the play in the midst of the First World War is brilliant. It emphasises foolishness of war. How yesterday’s enemy can be today’s friend. How men will follow fools, such as the idiotic Dauphin.

There is a particularly moving scene when Henry’s old ex- drinking friend Bardolph, is to be executed for disobeying orders and looting from a church. On his knees, trembling with fear, with a pistol pointing at his head, Bardolph breaks down. However this is not of course Bardolph, it is a patient acting the part. Why then is the scene so genuinely distressing?

Away from the battlefield, both Princess Katherine (Floriane Anderson) and Alice, her lady in waiting (Louise Templeton) are deliciously delightful, funny and sweet.

Rhys Bevan who was trained at the Oxford School of Drama, looks to be an unlikely Henry. He is however excellent in the roll. There is a lack of cynicism in his acting and great belief. The scene where Henry wins the heart of Katherine, despite the lack of a common language, is lighthearted, charming and hilarious. Almost worthy of a play all to it’s self. Rhys is set to become a stellar actor, mark my words.

Acoustically the venue is excellent. The singing and lovely accompanying music is crystal clear and the clarity of the dialogue is more than adequate. Mind you no audience member is more than about two meters removed from the action.

This is a truly stunning production. It is moving and thought provoking. The acting throughout is exemplary and the Cathedral provides a wonderful backdrop. I feel blessed that I was lucky enough to witness this event. It is an incredibly powerful production, and worth seeing however often you might have seen Henry V before.

Reviewed by Graham Archer

HENRY V plays at Southwark Cathedral until 22 February 2017