NEXT WEEK sees the unveiling of Druid’s latest epic undertaking, DruidShakespeare, which condenses the four action-packed plays of the Henriad – Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2 ), and Henry V – into one thrilling drama played out across six hours, as adapted by one of Ireland’s finest contemporary playwrights, Mark O’Rowe.
Richard II concerns the loss of innocence. A king since he was a child, when he finds his throne under threat he must consider how a king can become a man and ask himself how such a man can live. Henry IV is about the price of arrogance. Having plucked the crown from his cousin’s head, he divides houses, enrages nobility, and jeopardises the loyalty of his own supporters until he has only his family to turn to. Henry V is a coming-of-age story. He blazes away his youth with wastrels and wenches but he must face up to his fate as heir to the throne and mend his ways in order to win the hearts and minds of the realm and unite his country.
What to leave in? What to leave out?
Ahead of what is definitely one of the theatre highlights of the year, Mark O’Rowe took some time to share his thoughts on adapting these four famous plays, beginning by stating his familiarity with Shakespeare.
“In terms of seeing productions I have only the average amount that anyone would have seen,” he tells me. “I did Shakespeare in school and read a couple of plays as I got older. I didn’t become an absolute enthusiast until a decade ago and since then I’ve been quite obsessive about him and always have a Shakespeare play in my bag, that’s not about reading the same stories over and over again, it’s more about being inspired by the language over your working or writing day, it’s such extraordinary poetry.”
O’Rowe goes on to outline his approach to tackling this substantial Shakespearian undertaking. “The big thing is you are not simply doing a shorter version of these four plays,” he states. “You are trying to tell one story over the four plays. There are one or two radical choices that we made, the re-positioning of scenes in order to make the play about something quite specific. Because we are telling one story there might be one main theme, so once we decided what that was, it became a little bit easier to decide what to cut and shape. You cut what didn’t serve the play. It was about finding something that stays the same and then trying to make everything serve that.
“With Shakespeare it’s all brilliant, there is so much complexity and depth, and amazing writing, and poetry, and incredible drama, complex characters and contradictions, and everything else, but no matter what you include, you’re still getting rid of a lot of valuable stuff. If you can decide on the story you are trying to tell it becomes a bit more obvious what you can get rid of. Everything is a sacrifice in Shakespeare but we’re not serving Shakespeare, we’re serving this new story that is coming out of Shakespeare.”
There is a famous Hollywood anecdote about a film of Taming of the Shrew which has the immortal credit ‘by William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor’ but Mark O’Rowe stresses he is not about to emulate Mr Taylor in his DruidShakespeare adaptation.
“There were one or two, and I mean literally one or two, parts of the plays where you find you made a large cut, you might have cut an entire scene and you can’t quite link the last line to the next one several pages later so you have to finesse the lines to create that link,” he says. “Those bits are quite hidden – hopefully! If you notice those lines as you watch it then we are probably not doing a good enough job telling the story; it should be invisible. I only did those lines out of complete necessity, it would be complete arrogance and hubris to think that you could add anything to Shakespeare’s work.”
An Irish slant?
When Druid first announced this epic production the company declared the staging would view Shakespeare’s plays through an Irish prism. O’Rowe clarifies that perspective.
“We haven’t done anything that highlights connections to Ireland or undercut the Englishness of the plays and the fact that they are about English kings,” he says. “In terms of an Irish prism, it’s interesting, there is an Irish character called MacMorris and he was one of the things to go, he didn’t serve the story, he slowed it down. We could have kept him but he would cause a big road-bump in the fluidity of the story, that would be the negative and the only positive would be that he is Irish – what’s that saying? Nothing! It’s just not good enough a reason to keep him in. So in a way it is very difficult to find much relationship to the history of Ireland or Irishness versus Englishness because there isn’t too much of it in the plays.”
O’Rowe expands further on the Irish slant of Druid’s staging; “Given that it is Irish actors, they are using Irish accents, they are not pretending to be English, though the story is still set in a land called England, the costumes have a vaguely Celtic feel to them, these are all aesthetic choices but particularly for me the Irish prism is the ownership of the play, the story that we are telling we are unashamedly doing it with Irish actors.
“The big thing about being Irish and it’s something I never thought of before, is people speak different languages and that changes the relationship with Shakespeare. You’re not locked into that language, we’re a step removed from the English. When I was talking with Garry Hynes in terms of taking on the job, my big question was I don’t want to get into arguments where people are saying you have to keep this or that in. We don’t have the same kind of obligations that the English do in staging Shakespeare. Hearing Druid’s actors in rehearsal perform the plays it never crosses your mind that they are doing it in an accent any other than the one they should be doing it in, it sounds completely natural.”
O’Rowe also recently adapted Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler which has been running at the Abbey. He reflects on the two projects and compares them to writing his own work;
“They are very different,” he says. “With Shakespeare the text is sacrosanct. With Ibsen, you get the translation and you can put your own consciousness and tell it in your own voice as much as you can. The plot is so locked in you are constricted by that, but you are not constricted by the dialogue. They were both very enjoyable challenges but very technical challenges, whereas writing a new play is a very different process, it’s a blank page you can write anything.”
DruidShakespeare begins previewing this Saturday at the Mick Lally Theatre. The official run is from Sunday May 17 to Saturday 30. For tickets contact 091 - 568660.