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All-female cast goes to battle for ‘Henry V’

By : Eric Coker

Rose-Emma Lunderman can remember her reaction when she learned the Theatre Department would stage an all-female version of William Shakespeare’s Henry V.

“My jaw dropped,” Lunderman said. “I didn’t think we would ever do anything like this. I personally had no experience at all with Shakespeare, so to hear that there was going to be a show with all women was thrilling.”

The senior is one of 23 female cast members who will take the Watters Theater stage at 8 p.m. March 5-6, 12-13 and at 2 p.m. March 14.  Tickets are $14, general admission; $12, faculty/staff/senior; and $8, students.

Lunderman is portraying the title character, a complex King of England intent on invading France. Henry sets the pace of the 1599 play and dominates the story, even presenting speeches that take up entire scenes. The challenging role has been made famous by actors ranging from Richard Burton to Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh.

For Lunderman, royalty has been a daily learning experience.

“My mind is all around Henry 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. “I’m constantly discovering new things about who he is. … I’ve done my research and book work. When it comes down to it, it’s just opening myself up to anything. I’m finding out who Henry is and how I embody that.”

The Theatre Department pitched the idea of an all-female production to Michael Toomey, the show’s director and a visiting assistant professor. Toomey, a member of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., since 1998, has worked with cross-gender casts in the past and had just completed an all-female adaptation of Shakespeare’s long poem Venus and Adonis when the idea was presented.

Henry V is a good show to take advantage of the department’s “really talented women,” Toomey said, because of the chorus that introduces various acts.

“Right from the start they say, ‘We are actors. We are playing these parts. Engage your imagination,’” he said. “Shakespeare did it with all men. Why can’t we do it with all women?”

For Toomey and the cast, the greatest challenge was not adapting the cross-gender roles, but simply tackling the bard’s text.

“When I start a play with students coming to Shakespeare for the first time, 90 percent of my work is reducing the fear around Shakespeare,” Toomey said. “Our first interaction with Shakespeare most of the time is in the classroom with a book. It’s taught as literature in most high schools. Shakespeare was never intended as literature. It was written by an actor for his fellow players.”

Emily Esposito, a senior who plays Pistol, a commoner who fights for Henry, was able to get past her fears and has developed a love for Shakespeare’s works.

“This is a huge show,” she said. “We all care about the show so much and want to put 1,000 percent into it. The show as a whole is more of a challenge than the gender. This is my first experience with Shakespeare and it’s quite an experience.”

Getting a play such as Henry V “on its feet” is the key to progress, Toomey said.

“Once you get it on its feet, a different world opens up,” he said. “It doesn’t become such a foreign language anymore.”

Instead, cast and crew members see that Shakespeare is examining the cost of war on the common man, as well as looking at Henry’s journey and the responsibilities that go with the decisions of war.

Toomey also has brought other elements from his Shakespearean experience to the production. A class on clowning has helped cast members such as Esposito, while a course on stage violence has brought a sense of realism to a play that features many battle scenes.

“When I was first given the sword, I was terrified of it,” Lunderman said. “Now when I put it on, I am ready. Even though we’re not hitting each other, you feel the impact.”

“There’s going to be a lot of women with swords,” Toomey said with a chuckle.
Esposito and Lunderman both hope audience members leave Henry V with a greater appreciation of Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare’s characters aren’t only from a certain time period,” Lunderman said. “All of these stories are happening today. That’s why it’s still relevant 400 years later. Feel the story, be touched by the story and don’t think of something so far away.”

Toomey would like the show to spark debate and help the audience “go away a little more alive.”

“It’s people trying to get Shakespeare right,” he said. “The more time people spend with Shakespeare, they realize that there’s nothing sacred about Shakespeare. He just happened to be a really good writer — a kid from Stratford blessed with a great ear for language.”


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Last Updated: 10/14/08