“Then, England’s ground, farewell; sweet soil, adieu”. The tears that fill the eyes of Derbhle Crotty’s banished duke Bolingbroke convey the heart of Druid’s ambitious production of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Richard III, Henry IV (Parts I and II) and Henry V), distilled potently in a new adaptation by Mark O’Rowe.
Entering the theatre, on what feels like a funeral-led procession, we walk through the Hall of the Red Earl, the site of Galway’s oldest architectural foundations. It’s ingenious of director Garry Hynes to walk these history plays (in which Ireland doesn’t come out all that well, with Hugh O’Neill’s Nine Years’ War waging in the background) through her company’s own native ruins, and furthermore to convert the foyer of the Mick Lally Theatre into a soil pit where a gravedigger digs an imminent plot. If Druid is literally playing Shakespeare on home turf, it’s to share with Irish audiences, without embittering them about the colonial past, the holy bond between land and woman/man.
Not that gender-blind casting is new in the company’s repertoire; here it does form part of a wider reconfiguration. “Thou art a banish’d man” the Duke of York reminds Bolingbroke, pained remorse in John Olohan’s voice. The embodying of the usurper by a woman makes stronger strategy, and Crotty’s voice rolls like thunder. It lends to a greater dispossession, as Francis O’Connor’s dirt floor set rids the kingdom of any distracting riches, grounding us in kings’ contemplations of their humanity.
“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground; and tell sad stories of the death of kings” cries Marty Rea’s Richard II as he drops to the earth, facing his dethronement by Bolingbroke. Richard, having earned disrepute by bankrupting the country to pay for the Irish wars, is prone to immature tantrums and over-basking in his ordained glory. But Rea does great service to this purplish king’s downfall, his tortured questioning of self after shedding his royal decrees: “Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty; for you have but mistook me all this while.” It’s hard not to feel for him during the deposition scene, where Rea turns Richard’s arrogance into self-devastation.
The casting of 13 actors to play 57 roles sometimes goes without coincidence. For example, Rory Nolan who plays Richard’s misguiding counsel Bagot, goes on to embody Falstaff, the fat knight who represents the opposite of courtly ideals. Furthermore, that the scenes in his tavern have him sit on the same unadorned wooden throne where the kings sit creates the sense of a mock court, and carries extra irreverence. We welcome Nolan’s comic skills, as well as that of Clare Barrett as the snickering thief Bardolph, which uplift the drama.
O’Rowe has managed to get four plays down to a combined running time of six hours, serving up an adaptation that Hynes, extraordinarily, stages with sustained pace and rigour. Action is played both on the ground and in the upper tiers, while scenes shift fluidly with James F. Ingalls’s strategic lighting, Gregory Clarke’s hermetic sound design, and an expansive score by Conor Linehan that includes heavy drums, folky string instruments and haunting choral arrangements.
Stage effects combine electrifyingly during the Battle of Shrewsbury, where Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, and his army fight the rebels. The intimate-sized auditorium evokes a wider battlefield, pulling in a plastic-strip curtain that when struck by a soldier’s metal rod sends the bodies behind it rippling in David Bolger’s slow moving and forceful movement direction. When Olohan’s murderous Earl of Douglas tries to sneak attack the king, Henry IV slowly turns around, at the height of his powers in Crotty’s full self-possession, and engages in combat. Also in the depths of the conflict are Garret Lombard’s bile-filled Hotspur, clashing with Aisling O’Sullivan’s feral Henry V.
As a whole, the event is a thundering achievement in ownership of Shakespeare’s histories, not just in terms of craft but also in a sense of Irish authorship. This is down in part to each performer’s strong vocal possession of the verse. There are times when Aaron Monaghan speaks and he could be mistaken for being in a Pat McCabe play. Most subversive is Marie Mullen, whose unrushed, cold and lyrical delivery serves Shakespeare on the winds of Synge and Murphy.
Meanwhile, the Mick Lally Theatre is filled with transformation. In the auditorium, the constant introduction of O’Connor’s wonderful costumes, co-designed by Doreen McKenna to create historical clothing using contemporary materials, marks a stylish departure from tradition. During intervals, the foyer grows to become an expanding candlelit cemetery, keeping count of the dead.
Towards the end, the sprawling action during the Hundred Years’ War employs more traditionally formalist devices to contain it: commentators such as Monaghan’s playful one-man chorus and Charlotte McCurry’s tunefully tooting Frenchwoman. “Unto the breach” declares O’Sullivan’s Henry V, as the dirt floor begins to turn to muck. Hopelessness drones in Linehan’s score, as a dark succession of scenes sees characters mercilessly killed off one-by-one.
To unify the cycle, the figures of previous kings return during Henry V’s heartfelt prayer to God: “think not upon the fault my father made in compassing the crown; I Richard’s body have interred new”. O’Sullivan plays a ruler not basking in divine rights or guilting in usurping the crown but instead spending time disguised among the men who serve him, to try to understand them.
In bringing kingly rule dramatically down to earth, Druid harnesses the Henriad in its power not to debase but to challenge the hierarchy. Irish artists have been too long hesitant to touch this epic for the difficult colonial history between nations, a resistance that now feels triumphantly overcome.
DruidShakespeare is playing The Mick Lally Theatre until 30 May, then on tour until 30 August. For more information and tickets, see the Druid website. Photo by Matthew Thompson.