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Robert O'Hara's Radical Makeover of 'Henry V'

Date: May 02, 2018

The director helms a free production of the Shakespeare play at the Public Theater


When the Public Theater approached Robert O'Hara about doing a Shakespeare show for its Mobile Unit, he immediately suggested Henry V. The Obie-winning director-playwright (Bootycandy, Mankind) had previously done student mountings of the play and the opportunity to do it professionally was enticing, especially since Mobile Unit productions are streamlined to one taut act so they can be performed in nontraditional venues such as prisons, homeless shelters and community centers. "I knew I could bring my own playwriting skills because it has to be 100 minutes long," says O'Hara about editing the script. "Also, I would be introducing the story to people who might not be familiar with it."

The last in Shakespeare's tetralogy of history plays about bloodthirsty, corrupt, temperamental British monarchs, Henry V sees the English king invade France over petty insults. O'Hara believes it's an accurate reflection of our contemporary world where "men go to war over any and everything. The play is being told by dead people -- it starts with the characters rising from death to tell the story of how they died. They're the nameless, the numberless." O'Hara even gives audiences a taste of what it's like to be expendable by having the actors treat the spectators like new recruits.


Henry V has completed its five-borough tour and is now ensconced at the Public Theater through May 13. Yet it's being performed just like it was on the road, with houselights, no microphones, and barely there sets and costumes. "The Mobile Unit encourages the space to be the space, rather than us inviting the audience into a theatre," O'Hara says. "Henry V is one of Shakespeare's only plays where someone comes out to say, 'This is a play.' So it lends itself to being done with the lights on because, every so often, someone breaks the fourth wall to ask the audience to imagine something."

All performances of Henry V are free -- yes, even the ones at the Public. That was another big attraction for O'Hara, who worries that theatre is often only available to those who have cash to burn. "There's an excitement in this, which makes me think of how Joe Papp started the Public," he says. "All you need to do is show up." (Tickets are available via a digital lottery or in person 90 minutes before curtain.) "Sometimes money affords us a different experience, and here we open it up and allow people to sit in the audience who might not always get to sit there."

Speaking of access, O'Hara, who is African American, also embraced nontraditional casting, starting with Zenzi Williams as the title royal. "We should be thanking black women every single day," says O'Hara in regard to their political activism, though he says he chose Williams not to make a statement but because of her talent. "It was the possibility of what Zenzi brought to the role that excited me, rather than a predetermination to cast a black woman."

It's a joy to watch a woman of color portray a character that has historically been played by white men. But the multicultural ensemble also reminds us that these days, it's people of color in faraway places who are suffering the ravages of combat. "Americans don't have a connection to war in the way other countries do, because we don't have war on our soil," O'Hara says. "Places like Syria and Iraq have it, but for us war is a television show or a video game. It feels very distant."


Top image: Carolyn Kettig and Zenzi Williams in Henry V. Photos by Joan Marcus.

Jose Solís is a NY-based writer and editor who's been covering theatre and film professionally since 2003. He is a member of the Drama Desk. Follow him at @josesolismayen. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

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