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Probably one of Shakespeare’s most popular history plays in Great Britain, Henry V is definitely not a favorite in France, for obvious reasons, since it dramatizes not only the crushing British victory at Agincourt in 1415, but also the French military disaster, of which a scathing report is given. Although the history of popular theatre in France is tightly connected with Shakespeare, Henry V is very rarely put on by French directors and seldom programmed in French national and international festivals. There were two productions of the play in the Avignon Festival, founded with Richard II and a rewriting of Hamlet in 1947, and in which Shakespeare remains the most frequently performed playwright. The first production, directed by Jean-Louis Benoît, premiered in the Honour Court of the Papal palace in 1999, and was also the very first French production of the play ever. The second one, Enrico V, was an Italian adaptation by Pippo Delbono, programmed in 2004. Henry V was never performed in the Montpellier festival Le Printemps des comédiens, the second biggest drama festival in France in terms of attendance and international visibility. But Shake-Nice!, a Shakespeare festival founded in 2015 at Nice National Theatre by Irina Brook, challenged its audience by hosting a British production of the play in 2018. (To see these locations, reference the map provided above.) It provides a fascinating case study as the whole project was designed to be inclusive, questioning the British triumphalist vision that prevailed in the source-text so as to build the French reception into the dramaturgy of the play.
This one hour and forty-five minute British production of Henry V was co-directed by Ben Horslen and John Risebero, and performed by the company Antic Disposition – a company which won several awards for its Shakespearean productions. It premiered in France from August 2 to 13, 2015, in Périgord and Quercy, two former counties of southwest France which nowadays remain cultural and geographic areas, despite no longer being administrative entities. They hold particular significance in regards to Henry V, for the play dramatizes events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt, during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England (1337-1453), of which Quercy and Périgord were two of the main battlegrounds. Part of Quercy was yielded to England in 1259, and the whole of it in 1360. But in 1440 the English were finally expelled, and the county was recovered by France. Périgord was similarly at stake between France and England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The production was then performed in London from August 24 to September 5, 2015 and from March 26 to April 6, 2016, before going on a cathedral tour in the United Kingdom in April 2016 and February 2017. The last performances were eventually hosted by Shake-Nice! on January 24 and 25, 2018, where they were given in English, with French subtitles.
The schedule of performances shows that the production more or less coincided with the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt which took place on October 25, 2015, as well as with the centenary of World War I (1914-1918). It accounts for the double timeline of the play, which transposes Henry V into 1915, and for the double perspective which constantly prevailed in the project: the twofold reception in France and the UK. The French performances in particular were given prominence since they framed the history of the production, hence playing a key role in the general design of the play.
The action of Henry V revisited by the company Antic Disposition is set during World War I, in a military hospital where both French and British soldiers are tended to by nurses. As the patients get bored or depressed, one of them suggests putting on a play, Henry V, because he happens to be in possession of the text. The meta-theatrical device combines a distancing effect with a sense of inclusiveness, foregrounding the reparative power
of this adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play. The motif of the play within play implements different types of adaptive strategies that invite all audiences, whether British or French, to re-evaluate Henry V from a renewed perspective, turning a patriotic, partisan drama into one of healing and reconciliation – a theater project whose political commitment ironically became all the more significant in the context of Brexit, as the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016.