The production is touring, as part of a UK cathedrals tour, ending in Stratford upon Avon in November.
And it is extraordinary.
It was originally produced in 2015, which was the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, and of course also marked the centenary of the first full year of WW1. This production of Henry V is set within the framing device of being performed by wounded soldiers, some French, some English, convalescing in a hospital 'Somewhere in France', in 1915.
It opens with a stream of wounded coming into the hospital, including a young English soldier, his eyes bandaged following a gas attack, being led by a French soldier, to whom, in gratitude, he gives his only book, a pocket version of Henry V (which is, understandably, initially seen as an insult, before it is made clear that it is a gesture of thanks..) "J'ai une idee" a nurse says..
|'Stage' and programme (at the interval)|
Then we see these soldiers, and nurses, start to perform the play, with the limited props they have , the French and English crowns made from recycled tin cans, and the soldiers wearing their own (and each other's) uniforms, the famous tennis balls being rolls of bandages, and the only set dressing made from wooden supply crates, and (modern) French and English flags to mark each camp.
When the Shakespeare starts, it is as you might expect from a group of actors assembled by chance and their wounds rather than by any experience, a little hit and miss, we see the Bishops struggling with their lines, over acting and needing to check the text, and being heckled by their comrades, but then as the play moves on they segue smoothly into a smoother and more confident performance.
The WWI setting works really well, as do the songs (seven poems by A.E. Housman,set to music plus the 'Chant du départ by Marie-Joseph Chénier) and the preparations for battle, the siege, and the battle itself, are particularly poignant, presented as they are by characters who are themselves soldiers in the midst of a war, and who know first hand the horrors and cost involved.
Henry delivers his 'Once more into the Breach' speech in a rather rugby-scrum like mob, lifted to the shoulders of his men, and we see the Armies prepare to go into battle as though going 'over the top',complete with whistles and officers hand-guns.
There are moments when WWI breaks through . As Bardolph (James Murfitt) waits execution, we see him break character as Bardolph as his character of a WW1 shell-shocked man breaks through, and the others follow suit to care for him.
The play works in this setting extraordinarily well, and it's deeply moving. The tour is almost over, but if you happen to be in Stratford on Avon, Salisbury, Oxford or Hereford in the next few days, and can catch it, I strongly recommend it.
I'm not sure how long it will be up for, but there was a local new piece about it here