Members of Commonwealth Theatre Company scatter across a dimly-lit black-box stage, and launch into Act 1, Scene 1 of “Henry V.”
“Henry V” is, on its face, one of Shakespeare’s most stereotypically “masculine” plays. A war between England and France is looming, there’s an assassination plot, powerful speeches, a royal wedding to join two countries.
But this production of Henry V is performed exclusively by a cast of about 20 young, female-identifying performers.
In Shakespearean plays, characters masquerading as someone of another sex isn’t uncommon; in fact, it’s a pretty major plot device in plays like “As You Like It” and “The Merchant of Venice.”
But this is different.
CTC’s version of “Henry V” — excluding the pre- and post-show — is straight Shakespeare from the text. And director Jen Pennington said because of the casting, it results in some really nuanced moments.
“There’s a lot of war against women right now, okay? Literally and figuratively and metaphorically,” Pennington said. “And this play, ‘Henry V,’ is very masculine, like hyper-masculine, ultra-theatrical telling of a story of war. And specifically men at war.”
And, Pennington said, this dissonance between the text and the actors reading it may cause the audience to rethink some of Shakespeare’s script in a modern context.
“Part of the punch I wanted to have with this is hearing some of these lines that are awful, some of them, so misogynistic…hearing them come out of the mouths of these young ladies, these young women,” Pennington said.
These lines range from the debate over whether women can own land to more overtly sexist comments.
“One of the lines is ‘Dishonor not your mothers’ and I have all the women who are stage turning and say it to the audience,” Pennington said.
Besides their interpretations of Shakespeare’s original script, CTC’s version of “Henry V” opens with a powerful pre-show about what it’s like being a young woman in 2019. Audiences will hear snippets of news headlines detailing violence against women.
After the barrage of troubling news clips, the stage goes silent, and the actors begin singing a song called “Warrior.” The song narrates the life of a woman — from when she is young and feels she can’t fight, to her coming of age. At that point, the CTC actors are joined by women from Nevertheless Arts Ensemble, a collaborative of women artists committed to promoting and performing works created by other women.
They sing this stanza together:
I am an older woman now
and I will heed my own cries
and I will a fierce warrior be
’til not another woman dies.
According to Pennington, it’s a signal to audiences that if there is a war against women, these young actors are ready to fight.
Commonwealth Theatre Company’s “Henry V” is part of the theater’s annual Shakespeare Fest, which runs May 9th through 19th. More information is available here.