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Get to know HENRY V

Get to know this Shakespearean epic through a Q&A with our very own Artistic Director and Director of the play, Davis McCallum.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Davis McCallum

💬 So, you’re directing Shakespeare’s HENRY V, can you tell us a little bit more about the play and what inspired you to choose (and direct) it?

Yes, of course. It’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. People often think only of the famous speeches, but it is absolutely brilliant in its ambivalent construction. It’s wildly open to different interpretations. At the center of the play is the somewhat opaque but charismatic figure of King Henry. Very unusually for Shakespeare, it’s not until very late in the play that we get to find out what’s really going on with him. He decides to embark on a military campaign in France, and things get worse and worse, until something miraculous happens, which is the victory at Agincourt. And any good production of the play has to answer the question of what makes that miracle possible, and it has something to do with the relationship between this disparate group of individuals, and how they are brought into a unified whole. That felt like a relevant question in today’s fractured and anxious America.

💬 To you, what is the play really about? Can you talk about the theme of leadership in the play?

My strong contention is that it’s only a play about war on the surface. The deep heart of the play is about leadership, and about performance (especially as an aspect of leadership), and the ways in which the right words, set in the right order and given breath with intelligence and imagination and passion, have the power to change the world. Consider the way Ukrainian resistance and international engagement was galvanized by Zelensky saying something as simple and powerful as, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

💬 What makes the play a good fit for HVSF and our Tent and our audience?

Picture Shakespeare when he wrote the play in 1599. Aged 35. The resident playwright at the leading theater company in London, with a brand-new theater on the Southbank to fill. And as the culmination of his four-play Henriad, he sets himself the impossible task of staging England’s unmatchable moment of military glory, the Battle of Agincourt, with its cavalry and archers and crush of tens of thousands of men? And he comes up with the most brilliant and cheeky solution – “It’s not about us. It’s about YOU.” The performance, says the opening Chorus, is defined by what’s created between the audience and the actors. It’s the secret sauce of all the best theater under the HVSF tent. We say to the audience, “You have to jump in and participate and imagine it with us”; “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” That’s the secret motto of the production: we’re all in this together.

For the reason, our production of HENRY V will be performed in the round, with an added bank of audience seats upstage under the arch of the Tent, and a cast of 15 playing multiple parts. The cast is stocked with HVSF veterans, folks who have internalized the unique energy of the Tent from many seasons playing alongside Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson and others. They know how to play, and this production will be nothing if not playful. I can’t wait to dig in and share it with all of you.

💬 Can you talk about Emily Ota’s role as King Henry?

I decided to produce the play because of my excitement at imagining Emily as King Henry. Emily Ota is a singular talent who began her professional career at HVSF as a member of the Conservatory Company in 2015, and she has grown into one of the most accomplished American Shakespearean actors of her generation. Audiences will recognize Emily from our 2022 season, she played the prince in ROMEO & JULIET and Maria in MR. BURNS.

We’ve been having regular Zoom meetings, talking about the play and reading it to each other. We’re getting very excited about an approach that highlights both the character’s flaws AND his strengths as a leader, and Emily really embodies the idea of using language to inspire and motivate. When it comes to the way gender works in the play, we’re not changing the gender of the character and we’re not trying to fool anyone into thinking that the actor playing King Henry is a man. We’re just doing the play, and asking every member of the team and the cast – including Emily – to bring all of their lived experience to embodying the story in the most personal and meaningful way. I know it’ll allow us to find new and surprising moments that will illuminate the play in a thrilling way.

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