by Anne Flinders, dramaturg
Brigham Young University’s Young Company production of Henry 5 will bring with it a different, but perhaps not wholly unusual cast. The title role of King Henry V is being played by Mackenzie Larsen, a pre-acting major. In fact, there are four women in the cast of seven, and only one female role in the script. All the women are playing male roles.
Making a cross-gender casting choice in the title role of Henry 5 may come as a surprise to some theatre goers, but it is not without precedent. From the beginnings of professional English theatre in the 1560s to the closure of the theatres in 1642, boys were the performers of female roles in an age when it was considered unacceptable for women to act. Cross-gender casting (boys playing women) was therefore a familiar and acceptable practice, even an expectation, in Elizabethan theatre. However, women did not begin to appear on the stage in England until 1661, and when they did, they played women.
A lot has changed in the last 350 years. Casting women in male roles while reading the character’s gender as female is becoming a bit of a trend in theatre and film today. Fiona Shaw played the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard II in London in1996. While the production received initial mixed reviews (mostly because of casting Ms. Shaw as Richard), it did open up the idea that a woman could play a woman in a man’s role, rather than attempting to portray a male in the way boys portrayed females in Elizabethan theatre. For example, this idea was carried further when in 2010 Helen Mirren played Prospera in The Tempest, a decidedly female portrayal of the exiled sorcerer.
The director of BYU’s production of Henry 5, Megan Sanborn Jones, stated that part of her decision to cast a female in the title role lay in the fact that “there are simply not enough great roles for women, particularly in Shakespeare.” She also found that she gained new insights into the role through this casting choice. It prompted a very particular way of adapting Shakespeare’s script into a 50-minute play.
When Mackenzie Larsen learned that the title role would be played by a female, she was excited. “I loved the idea of having a female put in such a position of power.” As she became more familiar with the script she found that some of the lines are about “manning up and being like a King.” Larsen states, “The way these lines read with a woman as Henry gives them new meaning and gives the audience new perspective. The factor of being a woman and trying to prove yourself to a bunch of men makes Henry’s story that much more inspiring.”
Larsen says she has found that one of the challenges in taking on this role has been actually playing Henry as a girl. But she has found that once she stopped worrying so much about making the part fit the way people expect it to be, and just allows herself to be in the moment, she overcomes those concerns. She says, “Being present is powerful enough.”
BYU’s Henry 5 opens February 6th and runs through February 16th. Tickets are on sale now.