Houston’s Classical Theatre Company kicks off its eighth season with a nod to The Bard with the classic history drama Henry V. The play touts some of Shakespeare’s most recited lines, including battle cries like, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” However, in the production, opening Wednesday, Oct. 14, a woman will be calling her brothers into battle.
Having women in men’s roles has become somewhat of a trend in recent Shakespeare productions. In 2012, for example, New York director Phyllida Lloyd staged an all-female Julius Caesar to much acclaim. But the notion has certainly been around for a while, and it’s been trendy since 1899 when Sarah Bernhardt became the first woman to play the role of Hamlet.
Director Julia Traber wasn’t expecting to direct Henry V any time soon. Her area of expertise lies in more contemporary plays. But when another director cancelled at the last minute, Traber was excited to dig into Shakespeare with a woman in the lead.
The idea of an all-female cast tempted Traber, but she decided to audition men and women. Bree Welch, who plays the eponymous character, had quite the reach, garnering Traber’s attention all the way from Prague from where she auditioned live via video stream. “There was something about her audition that made me pretty sure I wanted to go with a woman, and in particular with her,” Traber says.
“It’s a very masculine play with a very iconic hero,” Traber says. “So often in Shakespeare’s plays women are defined in their relation to a man—as someone’s wife or widow or daughter.”
Trabor says that hearing a woman speak about power and destiny is surprisingly liberating. “Women—we still have a long, long way to go in how we are judged in our leadership roles,” Traber says.
Welch, playing the role of Henry V, doesn’t feel as though the production is necessarily making a point of gender commentary. “It’s the same story, the same journey, just being told by a woman,” Welch says.
Even so, she’s made some discoveries as a woman playing the rakish sovereign king. The play is known for its attention to war, and in particular, the battle of Agincourt. For Welch, the connotations change when a woman is leading men into that fight, bringing new meaning to the phrase “band of brothers.”
Other scenes manifest with a little more humor. When a French messenger opens a backhanded gift for Henry—a chest full of French tennis balls—it resonates differently with a woman in the role than it would for a man.
“There’s so much more to that moment, of another leader delivering tennis balls to a female leader,” Welch says. “We’ve had a lot of fun finding these moments…because of this gender reversal.”
Henry V. Oct. 14–Nov. 1. $10-25. Classical Theatre Company, 4617 Montrose Blvd. 713-963-9665. classicaltheatre.org