Feature: The uneasy crown in DruidShakespeare

In a promotional image for DruidShakespeare – Druid Theatre Company’s upcoming presentation of Shakespeare’s ‘History Plays’ – we see the white-painted face of the actor Marty Rea, pierced only by his brown eyes, with a wall of blue-shaded rock in the background. Shakespearean experts will draw their conclusions (“Is this the descending nobleman Falstaff, who with “ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester”?) but in its luminosity and severity it may be taken as a ghost. After all, this ‘Henriad’ is haunted at every turn: the guilt-ridden King Henry IV after usurping his predecessor; the taunted Henry V jeered for his ill health; and, more widely, a nation haunted by dynastic conflict. Druid director Garry Hynes has pinpointed another poltergeist in the room, that of theatrical tradition.

It’s safe to say that the plays in question – Richard II, Henry IV part I and part II, and Henry V – all have sparing production histories in comparison to other Shakespearean works in Ireland (when Edward Hall’s Propeller Company toured Henry V in 2012 it was marketed as the first professional production since 1906). One can suspect this is due in part to their possible pageant-style celebration of monarchal glory, a sensitive subject given the difficult colonial history between the two countries. “The question we are asking”, says Hynes at a media launch in Dublin’s Clarence Hotel, “is how, in the context of the historical relationship between Ireland and England, do we as Irish artists produce these plays today?”

The heartfelt Hynes admits feeling envious of other countries where translation can pose as a means of distance, of being able to possess Shakespeare in a local language, and by extension within a local culture. Irish artists are in a complicated position of working in essentially a coloniser’s language. Hynes’s strategy was to seek a medium: “I felt it very important to have a living writer in the room”. The congenial Mark O’Rowe rises to speak reverentially of Shakespeare but the arch author of Our Few and Evil Days and Howie the Rookie also admits certain modifications: reshaping the text while remaining faithful to the iambic pentameter, excisions that would “bring the wrath of Shakespeare-authorities on all our heads”. The desired effect is a distillation of the four plays into a unified dramatic narrative.

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As with the previous DruidSynge and DruidMurphy cycles, Hynes continues to take risks with marathon-type theatre, pushing at the limits of endurance and, with associate director and designer Francis O’Connor, the possibilities of contextualising several plays into a unified whole. Yet the stakes are raised higher still; where previously the director was intimately familiar with the drama of JM. Synge and Tom Murphy, you’d be pressed to find a Shakespeare credit other than a Druid production of Much Ado About Nothing from 1982. Furthermore, her experimenting with casting has wielded new possibilities. The marathon-style cycles allowed Druid to establish an ensemble, to have actors play selected roles across multiple productions, like haunted bodies treading the boards across time and space. “Acting is first and foremost an act of imagination”, she says. “That act of imagination transcends nationality, character, geography and background, and we see no reason why it shouldn’t transcend gender too”. The decision, then, to have the three kings played by one male and two female actors brings a new dimension to these dramas as plays of patriarchy.

There is another reason why Hynes seems so earnest. The fortieth year since founding Druid with actors Marie Mullen and Mick Lally has caused a gravitational pull: “We had a strong instinct to go home”. For many years the company have opened their marathon-type projects at the Town Hall Theatre in Galway but DruidShakespeare will play the Mick Lally Theatre on the company’s premises in the city. A 393-seater venue is exchanged for a 90-seater but it’s in the spirit of homecoming; reactivating the home theatre feels appropriate considering several ensemble players have never performed there. With support from Galway Civic Trust and the Office of Public Works, the action will fill the theatre building and spill out into the street (“There goes the neighbourhood” cracks Hynes). When it tours to Kilkenny Arts Festival in August, it will play site-specific at the castle yard where Richard II was based when fighting his ‘Irish wars’. Meanwhile, punters who were expecting a Dublin run, you better book a bus.

For Druid, it’s to be a year of paying tribute to home, in many senses of the word. Subsequently, it might resolve a problem that’s long haunted the Irish stage. You’d follow few others than Hynes and O’Rowe into that campaign. Unto the breach.

DruidShakespeare opens at the Mick Lally Theatre on 17 May and tours until 15 August. For more information and tickets see their website.