The U’s ‘Henry V’ Questions Leadership and Identity across a Virtual Stage


(Courtesy of the Department of Theatre | Photo by Todd Collins)

By Kate Button, Arts Writer, Copy Editor


In a continuation of the University of Utah theatre department’s entirely virtual 2020-21 season, the production of “Henry V” highlights the value of theatre and the arts in the midst of the current pandemic. 

Guest artist Stephanie Weeks directed this adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and her adaptation begs the audience to consider the role of reputation and authority in both political and social spheres. With the virtual platform of “Henry V,” Weeks said, “Zoom wasn’t built to do this, so there was a question of how do you create a theatre production on a platform not designed for it?” But in spite of these challenges, Weeks also said that the virtual aspect of this production “freed up other ways of thinking.” In light of logistical limitations, there were opportunities to explore new ideas and become even more creative. 

A Modern Take on the History Play

(Courtesy of the Department of Theatre | Photo by Todd Collins)

In the U’s adaptation of “Henry V,” there were just nine actors — a perfect amount to fill a Zoom screen — and several actors were double or triple cast. Although double casting is standard in Shakespearian plays, this component was flipped on its head as each actor took turns portraying the lead of Henry. As each actor presented their own version of Henry, the audience received a more nuanced and layered depiction of this complex character. By design, the actors did not want to all be playing Henry as just one character. “Each of our Henries is vastly different… [with multiple Henries] it feels like a whole universe of a character. Henry is really underrated but has so many layers,” said actor Connor Nelis. “Doing it this way brings out those different layers and pulls that apart. It gives a new perspective on what a king is and asks who is a king?”

Set in the early fifteenth century, King Henry IV has just died. Henry V, who has largely spent his adolescence being wild and unruly, suddenly has to take the throne. Upon doing so, the young King Henry V vows to be a perfect king. He is cold and merciless in his pursuit of justice. He is an excellent leader but is plagued by issues of self-doubt and fear. The play follows King Henry immediately after he ascends to the throne, and shortly decides to reinterpret an ancient law so that he can be justified in laying claim to the throne of France. These claims, and the following battles that ensue, challenge Henry to reconsider his black and white views on leadership.

Identity Crises and Questions of Authority

As one of the most memorable scenes of the play, King Henry notices that the English are far outnumbered by the French as they rest before the Battle of Agincourt. Assuming that they will lose this battle, Henry wanders around the campground to learn what his men think of him as he doubts his ability to be a good king. He has been taunted by others for his young age, and his past reputation as a naive and frivolous boy continues to haunt him, but as he walks around the camp, his authority is clearly respected. Pistol (Liam Johnson), a commoner from London, tells the disguised Henry, “I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heartstring, I love the lovely bully.”

Henry’s reputation plays a key factor in nearly all of his interactions with others, but learning that his subjects love and respect him, in spite of his past, is the validation he so desperately needed. Following these encouraging encounters, King Henry V famously delivers the St. Crispin’s Day Speech which popularized the “band of brothers” phrase. No matter his own preoccupations with identity and what it means to be a good leader, Henry — and the audience — realize the value of trust and community. As they stare down an impossible battle — which the English eventually win — they walk away with a greater appreciation for connection and respect.

(Courtesy of the Department of Theatre)

A Valiant Virtual Production

The U’s production of “Henry V” is complete with whimsical props, dramatic lighting and comic-book style backdrops that bring much-needed context clues to the play’s various settings. With the final scene — a marriage proposal from Henry to Katherine, the French heiress — Henry has radically transformed from a cold and calculating king to one who is more concerned with matters of the heart and serving his subjects in the best way possible. 

Across the Zoom screen, the U’s adaptation of “Henry V” leaves us with a greater understanding of the importance of human connection and the realization that we all have the power to be a great leader.


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