Purpose-built theatres are no match for cathedrals
Antic Disposition founders Ben Horslen and John Risebero explain the challenges and rewards of mounting productions in buildings not originally designed for performance
It all really began with a wedding. In 2008, two friends invited us to their civil partnership at Middle Temple Hall in London. From the moment we stepped inside the building, we were captivated by its beauty and sense of history. Over the preceding few years, we'd been staging theatre productions in unusual non-theatre spaces. We toured southwest France each summer, performing open-air Shakespeare in medieval town squares, gardens and castles, and had just finished a year long residency in an atmospheric but chilly derelict building in north London. We knew Middle Temple Hall's strong theatrical tradition, particularly as the location of the first performance of Twelfth Night in 1602, and so in 2011 – more in hope than expectation – we approached the hall about the possibility of staging a production.
Fast-forward to 2017 and we've now staged six productions in the hall, including Henry V in 2015, marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Henry started its life on tour in France before a short London run in Temple Church, the building founded by the Knights Templar and made famous by The Da Vinci Code. Our production is set in a French military hospital in 1915, with a strong emphasis on the cost and pity of war, and we found a powerful resonance in performing in the church. When we revived the production last year, we knew we wanted to recapture that resonance, so we approached some of the UK's finest cathedrals to see if they would host us.
It was an extraordinary experience. In Worcester Cathedral, the tomb of King John was literally in the front row of the audience. At Salisbury, a knight who fought at Agincourt and would have heard the historical Henry's pre-battle remarks was buried within earshot of our version of the St Crispin's Day speech. For a company that specialises in classical work, the opportunity to perform in genuinely historic settings is a particular thrill, and it's this combination of action and atmosphere that, we feel, gives our productions a little extra something.
Our style of staging has always been minimalist. Rather than using elaborate scenery, we rely on our spectacular performance spaces and an imaginative use of costume and lighting to create a sense of time and place. We often light the architecture as well as the playing area, bringing genuine grandeur to the court scenes in A Midsummer Night's Dream and a sense of real history to the narrative of Henry V.
So when we're asked whether we miss the resources of a ‘proper' theatre, the answer is always a resounding ‘no'. There may be no fly-tower or stage machinery, but the buildings provide their own brand of theatrical magic that no purpose-built theatre could hope to match. We've lost count of the number of times that audience members have remarked, upon leaving, ‘What a wonderful show and what an incredible setting', instinctively understanding that the two are inextricably linked.
For us, this remains one of the most exciting and rewarding elements of working in historic venues – the sense of introducing audiences not just to our shows or to the building, but to the strange and wonderful alchemy that occurs when the two come together.
Antic Disposition's Henry V visits eight cathedrals around the UK from 2 to 22 February 2017.