Showcasing Shakespeare

Aisling O'Sullivan as King Henry V rallies the troops in the rain at the Battle of Agincourt

On Wednesday evening I attended the Druid Theatre Company​’s DruidShakespeare, directed by Garry Hynes, which was a wild tour-de-force experience. I’m still processing it a couple of days later.

It consisted of the entire Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II, and Henry V), edited by Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe down to 6 1/2 hours or so.

The atmosphere was set prior to our procession into the theatre, with a small burst of period-appropriate choral music. We filed in along a path that was bordered on either side by plots of fresh earth, with a gravedigger about his business. Death is coming, we were being warned.

The Druid Theatre is an intimate size, and the ground was also covered in earth so the rich aroma filled our nostrils. We were arrayed around on three sides, and because I was sitting in the front row my feet rested in the soil throughout. We were all planted in the fields of England and France for the night.

As soon as Richard II began we were off on a gallop through the personal and feudal power struggles of England powered by the vigorous performances of a hugely talented company of actors, many of whom were playing multiple roles, and with women acting many of the significant power players of the Henriad.

Bosco Hogan as Bishop of Carlisle and Marty Rea as King Richard II

Marty Rea played Richard II in a costume that harkened him as a kind of Pharaoh. A figure appointed by God to govern the people of England, thus to topple him is to overthrow the natural order. This deposing of the King weighs heavily upon the mind of both of his successors, Henry IV and Henry V. To overthrow a ruler sets up a potential for further ruin… if mere people appoint a ruler, then what is to stop them from toppling their next monarch?

Rea gives a tremendous performance as both a manic royal egotist and later as mere ordinary man when he is stripped of all title, and life. His body does not arrive in a coffin, but is unrolled from a tarp and ignobly flung at the feet of the usurper King. Death is no fine deed. It is ugly and DruidShakespeare doesn’t dress it up. As we exited from the first play, rather dazed, the gravedigger had returned, but was now filling in a grave. When we returned for the start of Henry IV Part I a simple cross engraved with Richard’s title was erected in the fresh earth as a marker of his reign, lit by a candle.

Derbhle Crotty as King Henry IV and Aisling O'Sullivan as Prince Hal

Henry IV Parts I & II are essentially about the journey of Prince Hal from a somewhat feckless prince into a responsible monarch, and how freedom is swapped for duty. Significantly, Hal’s famous soliloquy in which he lays out his plans for redemption is stripped out, so his path from the drinking, wenching reprobate to the serious, dignified king is somewhat more straightforward, although not without emotional impact.

Derbhle Crotty’s King Henry IV begins as a courageous, confident noble, but when he attains the crown is increasingly troubled by the burdens of kingship and parental disappointment. The ripples from his riotous ascension to the throne continue throughout the two plays, lending it the plot points, but much of the heart of the plays come from Prince Hal and his merry band. Aisling O’Sullivan is magnificent, and plays Hal as the arrant prankster who hides his love from his fretful father until almost too late, and after he reluctantly takes up his father’s mantel, later goes on to prove that he wears the crown well.

Charlotte McCurry (Peto), Clare Barrett (Bradolph), Rory Nolan (Falstaff) and Aisling O'Sullivan (Prince Hal)

Rory Nolan is wonderful as the sack-loving Falstaff, whose bombast and storytelling is constantly undercut by the ribbing of Prince Hal and his cohorts. The bawdy pub scenes are bursting with life and humour. We observe the strengths and failings of Falstaff and his coterie of con men and women, which heightens the tragedy as we advance into Henry V. The contrast between the slapstick scenes and the sections devoted to the royal power struggles are mostly handled very well, although there is some wobbling in Henry IV Part II, which is the weakest play, and also in this version, the shortest (a wise decision).

And striding through Henry IV Part I is the charismatic Garrett Lombard as Hotspur, whose voice booms with contempt for the Prince. Lombard is the perfect foil for O’Sullivan’s Prince Hal: muscular, hot-headed, and always ready to fight. When the two face off for their inevitable battle, Hal looks the underdog with his lithe frame taking a battering from Hotspur’s unrelenting blows. Yet, the cannier of the two succeeds.

Aisling O'Sullivan as King Henry V prepared for battle

As we advanced through the plays the crosses and their accompanying candles proliferated in the temporary graveyard outside the theatre. A reminder that the conflicts of rulers have terrible consequences for both commoner and noble. And this point is driven home in the final play.

Henry V starts like a shot, with the new King proving himself capable of dealing out the terrible justice of kingship and staking his claim to his title in France. Shakespeare was an incredible playwright, but he was a propagandist for the Tudors of course. This is particularly evident in his depiction of the French, which this version uses for light effect.

Yet, even when Shakespeare lauds a King for embarking upon a war into a foreign land, he counts the cost for such ambition. King Henry V has ousted his former selfish self, Prince Hal, and he has repudiated his old company of sots and thieves… yet they are mustered to war, and trail after him onto the battlefield like ghosts of his previous follies. They do not survive the conflict.

In such a confined theatrical space the Battle of Agincourt is dealt with in convincing fashion: water streams down throughout the scenes of carnage, turning the ground into mud.

When the news arrives that the Battle of Agincourt has gone to the English, O’Sullivan falls to her knees in a convincing, spontaneous display of relief.

What was most amazing about the night was how quickly it passed. The taut, judicious streamlining of the plays and the nimble progression of the scenes carried the audience along so there was no sense that life existed outside the theatre. It was strange to leave the room, and return again to Galway, Ireland for a few minutes, before immersing ourselves anew in the world of Henrys.

John Olohan as Mistress Quickly

In Shakespeare’s day men played every role, so there was always a fluid notion about gender inherent in the women’s roles. Hynes has exploited this from a different perspective in her casting of the characters. Nothing is overtly made of the women playing men’s characters in the Henriad. The question is merely: are they convincing?

And the answer is a resolute yes.

Jack Olohan as Mistress Quickly brings an added dimension to the tavern scenes. Her description of Falstaff’s death is poignant, adding to the numbering of the dead at the end of Henry V.

I could spend much longer discussing the plays, the characters, and the staging but I won’t overstay my welcome. However, I must mention the costuming, which evoked the era by way of the 21st century. Quite frankly I’d be happy to wear anything Prince Hal/Henry V wore – sexy, studded and shiny, tight and flowing, a modern monarch indeed! A marriage of glamour and pragmatism. You might have to ford rivers and climb muddy troughs, but ‘sblood you’ll still look good afterwards!

Yet, none of this overshadows the true star of the plays: Shakespeare’s language. It had me in a trance from the sheer power of its eloquence for over six hours. O’Rowe and Hynes have wrought a wonder through judicious editing, modern, evocative sets, and a stellar company of talented actors.

If you are lucky enough to be in the vicinity of this staging of Shakepeare’s historical plays, I highly recommend you seek it out.

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