For The Birmingham Times
A group of children and teenagers are pretty sure that they know what the end of the world will look like – and what sort of civilization has a chance of surviving it. They are realizing this post-apocalyptic world in the Bards of Birmingham’s upcoming production of Henry V.
Performances begin Friday May 3, 7 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, 4300 Hampton Heights Dr., Birmingham, AL.
As is the case with many of Bards of Birmingham’s plays, Henry V was cast gender blind – a decision which ultimately led to Homewood high school junior Sara Bateman, 17, earning the title role.
The combination of having a woman king, together with the opportunity to explore the motivations for political violence through one of Shakespeare’s war plays, prompted Executive Director Laura Heider to let her actors create a future world in the aftermath of a catastrophic disaster.
The actors, ranging in age from 4 to 68, imagined a universe in which resources were scarce and humankind had regressed to a semi-medieval, warlord-like society where only the strongest survived. The young female King Henry would have to show exceptional strength to not only survive, but thrive in this environment.
“These actors have jumped headlong into exploring social theories of violence and the ways in which we sow the seeds of our own destruction,” Heider said, “in addition to learning the technicalities of stage combat – there’s plenty of fighting – and the intricacies of Shakespeare’s 16th-century language.”
This production has special poignance because it is the last Bards of Birmingham plans on staging for the indefinite future. Since inception in 2010, Bards has staged 17 plays, drawing their casts primarily from community youth aged 18 and younger. After nearly a decade of successful operations that have involved more than 300 young people from all walks of life, the leadership of Bards has determined to go on hiatus for the foreseeable future.
Over the course of its operations, four Bards actors have gone on to act professionally, two have been admitted to Jefferson County Academy of Theater and Dance, and 10 students have been placed in the Theatre Arts department at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. Bards graduates have received tens of thousands of dollars in college scholarship money in theatre.
“This is the role of a lifetime, and it feels particularly significant to be playing it in our final production,” said Bateman, who plays King Henry. Bateman has been part of the Bards since playing a fairy in its first production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Being a part of this company has formed who I am as a person. I’m different because Shakespeare was a huge part of more than half of my life.”
Bateman has taken on the challenge on a profound level, changing the way she walks, talks – and even how she holds her head. She says she examines her daily behaviors through the lens of how she believes Henry would approach them.
This production features actors as young as four; adult actors are also part of the cast, as actor-mentors in supporting roles. The central characters are portrayed primarily by young people ranging in age from 5 to 17.
Although many Bards of Birmingham plays are set in the Elizabethan era in which they were penned. Heider periodically draws upon the timeless nature of Shakespeare’s works in order to explore contemporary social situations. Bards’ 2012 production of Richard III was set in gangland America; King Lear in 2013 envisioned a steampunk dystopia.
“The setting for Henry V is meaningful because young people today are only too aware of how we sow the seeds of our own destruction,” Heider said. “It was not much of a stretch for our actors to see how we might have brought ourselves, as a race, to the brink of extinction.”
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham hosts Bards of Birmingham and is helping bring the vision to life through their enthusiastic support of the project.
Henry V will be a work of immersion theatre in some respects; audience members will be divided into the French and English sides, and experience the play differently. Potential audience members are cautioned that violence is portrayed realistically in this production. Bards of Birmingham does not modify Shakespeare’s words to make them “child friendly.”
Eleventh-grader Caspar Fournier plays the Duke of Exeter, Henry’s primary lieutenant. “Working in this production has been transformative for me,” he said. “We delve deep into the motivations, meanings, and words. This isn’t just a play, it’s an experience.”
Other performances will be held May 4, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; May 10 at 7 p.m.; May 11 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and May 12 at 3 p.m. at Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham.