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Antic Disposition's John Risebero

Interview with John Risebero of Antic Disposition

Last year, the award-winning theatre company Antic Disposition toured a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. They continue with this tour in 2017 by visiting eight of the UK’s most historic and beautiful cathedrals.

Performed by a cast of British and French actors, the production celebrates the rich and often turbulent relationship between our two nations, from the Hundred Years War to the Entente Cordiale. Marking the ongoing centenary of the First World War, this version is set in a French military hospital in 1915 – 500 years after the Battle of Agincourt – where two groups of wounded soldiers, one French and one British, decide to raise their spirits by staging a production of Henry V.

Antic Disposition was founded by director Ben Horslen and director/designer John Risebero. They are best known for presenting productions of classic plays and stories in spectacular historic buildings. Recent London productions include: A Christmas Carol in the Elizabethan setting of Middle Temple Hall, The Comedy of Errors in Gray’s Inn Hall and Romeo and Juliet in the Temple Church. Henry V has previously toured France, received two London runs, and has been performed in Winchester, Salisbury, Bristol, Gloucester and Worcester Cathedrals and Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, the burial place of William Shakespeare, as part of 2016’s Shakespeare400 celebrations.

[Ben Horslen and John Risebero]

So, John, how did you meet Ben Horslen?

Through a mutual friend, Kate, who had been at school with Ben and at university with me. She thought we’d hit it off and she was right.

How soon did you realise that you could set up your own company to pursue your own artistic endeavours? Was this scary?

It was about three years after we met, when we had worked together on a couple of productions, that we first talked about starting a company. Our first Antic Disposition show, The Shakespeare Revue, was performed the following year. It was more exciting than scary. I remember sitting in a packed audience in London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, at the final performance of that show, feeling really exhilarated by what we’d all achieved.

How would you describe Antic Disposition’s style?

Innovative and visually striking ensemble storytelling.

Is there a certain type of actor that suits this style?

We’ve worked with many wonderful actors but I think the common thread that links them all is a sense of playfulness. It’s important to do good work, of course, but if you’re not having fun, then what’s the point?

[Catherine of Valois and her maid - Henry V]

Do you co-direct with Ben? How do you juggle the role of director?

Yes, we always co-direct. I trained as a theatre designer and Ben’s background is in English literature, and the simplest way to describe it is that Ben does words and I do pictures. There’s a bit more to it than that, of course, but that’s how we start!

What is it about site-specific/open air productions that inspires you?

Because we work almost exclusively on classic plays, mainly Shakespeare, site-specific historic venues add a real extra layer to the audience’s experience. Last year in Salisbury Cathedral, we played Henry V next to the tomb of one of the knights who fought at Agincourt. Our production of A Christmas Carol is staged at Middle Temple Hall, the Inn of Court where Dickens trained as a lawyer. These links can really help an audience connect with a performance.

The WW1 theme for Henry V - had you planned this production far in advance or did it just happen naturally?

Henry is probably the most conceptually complex show we’ve ever done. We devised the WW1 setting because we tour all our Shakespeare plays in southwest France, and we wanted to find a way to produce this story of an English invasion of France without insulting our hosts! In 1415, the two countries were mortal enemies but in 1915 they were close allies. Our concept for the production – that a mixed group of English and French soldiers stage the play while recovering at a military hospital – gave us a way to show both sides of the historical relationship between the two nations.

[Henry V’s iconic speech]

How do you update/adapt plays to current events and the venues?

One of the most exciting challenges working in historic buildings is deciding how to use the space. They are often vast and imposing structures that could easily overwhelm a production, so it’s all about finding a way to make those characteristics work for the show. In a cathedral, for instance, there might be an opportunity for a really powerful entrance or exit using the immense length of the building. We always aim to interact with a space, rather than ignore it.

What are your views on the use of theatrical technology (eg The Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Tempest using holograms)?

It’s fascinating to see how technology develops – as well as the RSC Tempest, there’s some very clever stuff in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that really adds to the magic of the show. It’s rarely right for our own productions but great to see other people experimenting with it.

[Catherine of Valois and Henry V]

What would you say has been your greatest AD moment? And your worst?

Performing Henry V in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in the week of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was an extraordinary experience. On the flip side, on our first ever tour of France, we played to an audience of about a dozen on a miserable rainswept night in Gourdon. I thought we’d finish the tour bankrupt, but luckily the London run was better attended!

Is there a country or specific venue that you’d love to perform in?

We’ve performed in England, France and Poland, and have our eye on a couple of venues further afield. It would be great to go to Italy, as so many of Shakespeare’s plays are set there.

Is there a director/actor that truly inspires you (past and/or present)?

Some of my biggest influences are directors not from theatre, but film – the visual style, storytelling and use of music of Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg in particular. It’s great fun to try and translate their techniques into a theatrical setting.

You take your company name from Hamlet, but haven’t produced the play? Are there plans afoot to rectify this? What are AD’s future plans after Henry V?

Funny you should say that… We’re shortly going to announce our summer show, which will be a new Shakespeare production, and then in December we’ll be back at Middle Temple Hall with our musical production of A Christmas Carol, which is always a joy to produce. We get a lot of emails from audience members who say it’s become a part of their family Christmas traditions, which is lovely.

[The cast of Henry V]

Henry V has a running time of 2 hours 15 minutes (including an interval). It is directed by Ben Horslen and John Risebero, with design by John Risebero. The composer is Christopher Peake. Production photography by Scott Rylander.

Box Office Tickets are available from or on 0333 666 3366.

Facebook: Antic Disposition

Twitter @anticdispo, #HenryV

Instagram @anticdispo

Performance Dates:

2nd–3rd February Southwark Cathedral, London

7th–8th February Beverley Minster, East Yorkshire

9th February Ripon Cathedral, North Yorkshire

10th–11th February Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire

13th–14th February Lincoln Cathedral, Lincolnshire

15th February Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

16th–17th February Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

18th February Norwich Cathedral, Norfolk

Finally, back to:

21st–22nd February Southwark Cathedral, London.


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