DruidShakespeare - A magnificent presentation of four great plays

Let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings,

How some have been deposed, some slain in war,

Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,

Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,

All murdered. For within the hollow crown

That rounds the mortal temples of a king

Keeps Death his court...

They are killing kings in the back streets of Galway. People watch with their hands to their mouths. To get to the scenes of slaughter, and to witness the harrowing struggles for power, betrayal, murder, cruel rejection, father-son conflict, and redemption of sorts, you walk over the ruins of the 800-year-old centre of Norman authority, and on into the cold, stone walls of the Mick Lally theatre. You pass a man digging graves.

DruidShakespeare, in its most ambitious project to date, has melded four of Shakespeare’s great history plays together, Richard II, Henry IV (parts I and II ), and Henry V. It plays out in a six-hour drama covering the violent overthrow of Richard II of England, and follows the growth of Henry V from wild youth to a great war leader. These four plays are known as ‘the Henriad’ because of the epic struggle they portray as in the classical Iliad and Aeneid.

It opened in Galway this week, and continues until the end of this month, before an extensive national tour,

which will end at the Lincoln Festival Centre, New York, in July.

Roles for women

Adapted by Mark O’Rowe, and directed by Garry Hynes, there are some innovative ideas in the play. The four plays-in-one allows for the same actors to appear in each, and Druid has assembled a diamond crew. Many of whom have appeared in Druid productions before. This, however, is a tough challenge. Thirteen actors play more than 50 different roles during the six hours.

Not least is the idea of women playing strong men’s parts. In Shakespeare’s time, more than 400 years ago, all women’s roles were played by men. This is a neat turn-around, and gives women starring roles in these male dominated plays. Derbhle Crotty as Bolingbroke, and later King Henry, looks and fills the part with energy, and empathy. Aisling O’Sullivan as Hal, and later Henry V, is suitably diffident until his assumption to the throne, which he grasps with heroic valour, and conveys total confidence both as a military leader and judge of people.

An extraordinary performance from Marty Rea as Richard. He has made the most reflective, and poetic, monologue at the end of the play, entirely his own, winning our sympathy despite his unwise decisions as king.

Watch out for Marie Mullen as Northumberland (descending a ladder with the lightness of a child ), and the wonderful Clare Barrett as Bardolph.

Sense of foreboding

If Garry Hynes has assembled many of Ireland’s leading actors to bring Shakespeare to the Irish stage, which many people feel has not been done to a satisfactory standard before, she has equally brought together an outstanding stage and technical team. Within the confines of a small theatre, with lighting, different levels, costume and music, they perfectly create castles, town walls, villages, a tavern, streets, battlefields, and, above all, atmosphere. The use of music and sound, all originally composed by Gregory Clarke and Conor Linehan for this production, is entirely successful. The music gives weight or lightness to the actor’s words; or dramatically ends a scene with a clash, sounding like a great bell falling from its ropes within a tower. The sense of foreboding this sound emits sent a shiver down my back.

‘Crown of thorns’

The genius of Shakespeare is on many levels, but one for which he is brilliant, is that he does not allow his audience to wallow in the misery of death and betrayal for long. He weaves many humorous scenes throughout his plays to lighten the load. In the Henriad, however, he goes many steps further, by creating the character of Sir John Falsatff, perfectly underplayed by Rory Nolan. Falstaff, and his cronies, hang out at the Boars Head Tavern in Eastcheap. The young prince Hal joins them for nights of unruly and riotous behaviours, drinking, stealing, fighting and rowing, playing jokes and enjoying wild women.

Falstaff, larger than life in every way, indulges Hal’s cruelty and insults, by responding with clever, good natured jokes. Falstaff loves the prince and sees himself as a father figure to the young man. Of course he hopes for some financial gain when Hal becomes king, but in the meantime he is content to humour the young man in a genuinely good natured way, and include him in their rebellious behavior which is much disapproved by Hal’s father the king, and his court.

The king fears that Hal will not take his duties seriously when he becomes king. But, when he suceeds his father, Hal immediately accepts all the responsibilities which the crown imposes, represented in the play by a ‘crown of thorns’. In a famous scene, when Falstaff greets the new king on the day of his coronation, the king dismisses him with the words:

‘ I know thee not, old man,

fall to thy prayers.

How ill white hair becomes

a fool and jester.’

Falstaff is utterly crushed. The scene ends with Falstaff sitting, waiting for the king to change his mind, and summon him to the castle. Of course Falstaff waits all night. There is no summons.

There had to come a time when Garry Hynes would take on the Master. She has done so with extraordinary energy, passion, and although she presents the plays in a long, six hour, session, she acknowledges that the best actor, or technician, on her stage is the language. And it flows magnificently.

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