This is actually not a spoiler: the actor who plays the title role in the Classical Theatre's production of Henry V is a woman. It's not a casting gimmick, Classical Theatre's Executive Artistic Director John Johnston tells us.
“There was a production of Henry V in Houston recently. We didn't just want to do a repeat of that or of any other production. We wanted to see how we could make this interesting, make it our own,” he says. "We wanted to provide a never before seen quality to it.
“We looked at the themes that are already existent in the play and one of the things that's true about the play is that it's a very manly piece. It's about Henry coming to the throne and trying to be his own man, about how he's going to fill the big shoes that his father left. There's that whole manhood thing going on in the St. Crispin Day speech and it's all very aggressively manly. There aren't very many women in the play but the women that are there fill a very unique and specific role.
“We just kept running into manhood and being manly and masculinity and we thought, 'Well, gender is interesting. What if we looked at the way that gender plays a role here?' And we decided to do gender-blind casting.”
Not a full reverse gender casting, mind you. Some of the male roles are still played by men and some of the women's roles are played by women, but it's a female actor, Bree Welch, that's tasked with bringing the bigger-than-life Henry V to the stage.
“She's fantastic!” says Johnston. “We're really excited to have her. She just spent a couple years in Prague and she just came back to Houston. We scooped her up and said, 'Hey, come be our Henry.' We're very excited to get to work with her again.
As with all of Classical Theatre's productions, Henry V is filled with famous and recognizable lines. Lines, Johnston admits, that many in the audience know by heart and have a preconception of how they should be delivered. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," from Henry's St. Crispin Day speech among them.
"It's not unusual to come across classic lines or characters in each of our productions. People have expectations of the lives of the characters, we know that. With Bree we have an incredibly talented actor. I think she's going to bring a very real and visceral and authentic performance to the St. Crispin Day speech, a vivaciousness."
Much of Henry V is heavy drama. People are going to war, people are dying. For the most part, it's a very serious play. Which is why Classical Theatre is paying special attention to those moments of humor and romance.
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"If we produce a comedy, I want to make sure that it's very funny but I also want to make sure that it has moments where things are grounded in drama. It's important to have that contrast. If the whole thing is straight and heavy, it's all one note, it becomes one broad wash with no real ups and downs.
"One of the things that Shakespeare's so excellent at is that contrast. In the follow-up scene [to Henry V,] there's a real lightness about it. They've won the war and they get to enjoy the victory a little. If the victory at the end comes easily, if the villain isn't difficult to vanquish, it cheapens the victory. We have to earn that last scene of lightness. We go through the meat grinder and when we come out the other side, we've earned some happiness."
Along with gender-blind casting, Johnston and company made other changes to the play. It's been taken from the 15th century and set in a post-punk England. ("There will be lots of leather jackets," Johnston tells us.) And an hour and a half has been cut off of the running time. “It's a very long play in its entirety,” Johnston admits. “Frankly, I think it's too long for modern audiences. There's a lot that doesn't necessarily need to be in there so we made some changes. The show runs about two hours now.”
There are preview shows at 8 p.m. October 14 and 15. Regular performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through November 1. Classical Theatre Company, 4617 Montrose. For information, call 713-963-9665 or visit classicaltheatre.org. $25.