Classical Theatre Stages Gender-Bending Production of Henry V

By | October 21, 2015

On October 25, 1415, King Henry V led an outnumbered English army to victory against the French in the Battle of Agincourt, a pivotal moment in the Hundred Years’ War. Exactly 600 years to the day after that famous victory, Houston’s Classical Theatre will stage a production of Shakespeare’s 1599 play Henry V, which famously dramatizes the battle. In the play, King Henry whips up his troops before the battle with the now-famous “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, which includes some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother.”

photo by Pin Lim

The lines take on a new meaning in the Classical Theatre’s version of the play, however, since the actor playing Henry is actually an actress, Bree Welch. Several of the other male parts are also played by women, and several of the female parts are played by men. (Other roles are more traditionally cast.) The play runs through November 1 at the Classical Theatre’s Chelsea Market location.

Gender reversals in casting are nothing new—after all, the female parts in Shakespeare’s plays were originally played by male actors. The great French actress Sarah Bernhardt scandalized audiences in the late 19th century by playing several of Shakespeare’s male leads. And an all-female production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar made a sensation in New York a few years ago.

Classical Theatre executive artistic director J.J. Johnston said the company simply chose the best person for each part, whether male or female. “The casting was gender-blind, and we saw a pretty wide variety of folks,” Johnston said. “In the end, Bree brought a very grounded quality to the part. And she also has an excellent facility with the language—she’s very well-trained and has done loads of Shakespeare.” Welch has a long history with the company, having previously played the title role in its production of Antigone and a leading part in The Triumph of Love.

photo by Pin Lim

The production’s gender-blindness forces audiences to reconsider one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, Johnston said. “It’s a very manly play. It’s about war and soldiers and blood and guts. And we have this character, Henry, who’s trying to live up to his father’s fame while becoming his own man. So with all that manliness, we said, how interesting would it be to explore it with a woman?”

One of the biggest challenges faced by any company trying to mount Henry V is the difficulty of representing such an epic story in a confined theater. Fortunately, it’s a challenge that Shakespeare anticipated. The play begins with a Chorus that begs the audience to “Suppose within the girdle of these walls / Are now confined two mighty monarchies / Whose high upreared and abutting fronts / The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.”

But despite its epic scope, Johnston said Shakespeare’s play is really about Henry the man, not Henry the warlord: “It’s a war play, and epic things are happening. At the same time, it’s not so much about armies colliding as about this single character’s journey.”

Henry V. October 19 thru November 1. Classical Theatre @ Chelsea Market, 3617 Montrose Blvd #100. Tickets from $10-25.

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