July 11 DruidShakespeare: The History Plays

The Druid Theatre's Charlotte McCurry, Clare Barrett, Rory Nolan, and Aisling O'Sullivan in "DruidShakespeare: The History Plays," playing at the Lincoln Center Festival (photo: Matthew Thompson)

The Druid Theatre’s Charlotte McCurry, Clare Barrett, Rory Nolan, and Aisling O’Sullivan in “DruidShakespeare: The History Plays,” playing at the Lincoln Center Festival (photo: Matthew Thompson)

The Death of Kings: ‘DruidShakespeare’ at the Lincoln Center Festival

Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company returns to the Lincoln Center Festival with an ambitious adaption of the Bard’s history plays

By Joseph Whelan
Contributing writer

Some of the best theater I have seen in the past decade has come from Ireland’s Druid Theatre, the Galway-based company with the tiny home down a cobblestone alley and an outsized international reputation. Among these productions have been a trio of plays by Enda Walsh and two ambitious cycles, DruidSynge and DruidMurphy, the former comprising all seven plays by John Millington Synge and the latter made up of three plays by Tom Murphy.

DruidSynge and DruidMurphy have been part of past Lincoln Center Festivals. The company returned to New York for this year’s Festival with its latest and perhaps most ambitious cycle, DruidShakespeare: The History Plays, an adaptation of Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. Contemporary Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe is responsible for the adaptation. Druid artistic leader Garry Hynes directed. If thou lovest theatre, DruidShakespeare gives cause to rejoice.

The War of the Roses — the internecine struggle for the British crown between the Houses of York and Lancaster — is the overall subject of this Shakespeare tetralogy. (Shakespeare penned a second tetralogy that continues the story with Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and ends it with Richard III.) The plays in DruidShakespeare address essentially the first half of this extended conflict, beginning with the dispute that leads to the forced abdication of Richard II by Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), whose reign in turn is marred by rebellion and dispute. Upon his death, Henry’s son, the seemingly dissolute Prince Hal, assumes the throne as Henry V, and for a time restores unity in England by virtue of his successful military campaigns in France. There will be blood in Druid’s adaptation — which first and foremost arrives as a story “about the death of kings,” as Richard laments in the first play. The death of commoners, too, as we learn much later.

As the plays begin, director Hynes and designer Francis O’Connor (aided by the effective lighting by James F. Ingalls) have decked the stage with momento mori, including a gravedigger busy plying his trade on a mound of earth (the stage floor is completely covered with peat-rich soil from the West of Ireland); a solitary white cross placed on its side (these crosses will multiply on the mound and eventually span the stage as the plays progress); a simple seat constructed principally of two stone slabs that could easily be blank headstones (this becomes the throne on which each successive king will sit); and most potent, a bleached, white skull adorned with a gold crown and entombed in glass case stage left — where it bears foreboding witness to the onstage proceedings. This crown better resembles a crown of thorns than an emblem of privilege and power. Uneasy indeed will be the heads that wear this hollow O.

The first head belongs to Richard, and what a head it is — shaved and white as the bone of the skull stage left, as is his face as well. He seems an otherworldly creature, reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’s Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. This Richard is fantastical and his actions are those of a man living in a fantasy world of flattery and vanity. He cannot read the political reality before him and consequently charts a blundering course culminating in regal and personal disaster. His downfall is as close as that grave gaping wide upstage. But the great irony of Shakespeare’s Richard II is that as his royalty and power dissolve, and — as his death approaches — his humanity appears.

Druid veteran Marty Rea plays Richard, and for me this was the standout performance of the cycle. I have seen this actor many times and have always been impressed, but never have I seen him better.

His Richard is mercurial, impulsive, childish even — running, twirling, dancing and prancing about the stage; generous one moment, petulant and cruel the next; giddy with his own power and oblivious to his inability to use it well. He is more foolish than malicious, and Rea endows him with a palpable sense of a man who wants to do right but hasn’t the right sense to do it. Consequently, as his circumstances worsen his blunders compound and his demise becomes inevitable, though his humanity deepens and he earns our sympathy.

As he sits upon the ground to tell that sad story of the death of kings, the “little scene” of playing at king gives way to a brutal moment of recognition that “the mortal temples of the king” are his own. The anguish with which Rea concludes the famous speech, “how can you say to me that I am a king?” is heartrending. Imprisoned by Bolingbroke in the Tower, Richard scrubs off his white make-up in a pail of water. He is no longer an alien to himself and others. For the first time, he sees himself and can be seen by us as human. And he is about to be murdered.

The man responsible for Richard’s death (directly or indirectly) is Henry IV, his successor or usurper, as the case may be. There are more “ors” than clarity in Henry’s claim to the throne, and that uncertainty will poison his reign in the guise of continuous revolts, even as it disquiets his mind with worries about his own successor. Just as Richard is not fit to be king, so, too, this Henry may not have quite the mettle it takes.

It’s telling that when he orders the execution of Richard’s ally Bagot, he is content to exit and leave the dirty work to the “all-praised” knight Hotspur — who is only too glad to fulfill the command.  If Richard bore responsibility too lightly, Henry bears it too heavily. And it literally wears him down. By the time we reach the speech in Part 2 in which Henry bemoans his chronic insomnia, the monarch is a bent, stooped old man unable to walk without the aid of a stick and who will never move unassisted again.

The Druid Theatre's Derbhle-Crotty as Henry IV and Aisling O'Sullivan as Henry V (photo: Matthew Thompson)

The Druid Theatre’s Derbhle-Crotty as Henry IV and Aisling O’Sullivan as Henry V (photo: Matthew Thompson)

DruidShakespeare is performed by a cast of 13: six women and seven men who play some 80 roles. There is cross-gender casting throughout, including principal roles — most significantly Derbhle Crotty as Bolingbroke/Henry IV and Aisling O’Sullivan as Hal/Henry V. Director Hynes has said that no specific artistic statement was necessarily intended by the cross-gender casting. For her, it was more a matter of we are a company of actors and this actor is taking on this role. The women are not pretending to be men, and the men are not pretending to be women. For the most part, this worked well. Clare Barret made a gentle and good-natured Bardolph; Charlotte McMurry a delightfully comic Nym. The great Marie Mullen was spot-on in several roles, and John Olohan made the most of his white-bearded Mistress Quickly. With Crotty and O’Sullivan in the more complex roles, the results were uneven.

Despite Hynes’s assertion, I felt Crotty and O’Sullivan were inhibited by the masculinity inherent in these soldier-kings. Both seemed locked in their lower vocal registers, which tended to flatten the verse and narrow their range of expression. Neither seemed to explore the full range of these rich characters, which distorted important relationships. Crotty for instance was neither a physical nor vocal match for Rea — whose Richard seemed quite capable of easily overpowering Bolingbroke. Consequently, Bolingbroke became a man whose power resides more in his army than in his person. I missed the personal authority and conviction, and the strength of character, necessary for Bolingbroke to lead a revolt.

Similar distortions affected O’Sullivan’s Hal/Henry V. By restricting her voice to lower registers she became the vocally weakest character on stage when that character as Henry V has some of the most soaring speeches in all of Shakespeare. In the tavern scenes, her Hal seemed almost mono-toned and dull — not the merry, dissolute prankster about whom his father complains. This Hal came across as mean-spirited and cold, with no real affection for Falstaff (a very fine Rory Nolan). Without the bonds of affection defining their relationship, Falstaff’s later banishment by Hal as Henry V lacks emotional impact. It’s too easy for Hal, and Falstaff looks more of a fool than a man betrayed by someone he thought a friend.

But I fear I doth protest too much. My complaint with Crotty and O’Sullivan has most to do with the mechanics of performance, as opposed to interpretation. They are both fine actors and I wish they had just cut loose and opened up the full range of their voices and physicality to match the demands of these roles. Within the context of the adaptation, though, their interpretations served well.

In creating DruidShakespeare, adaptor O’Rowe explains that his task is to find the one story he wanted to tell among the many stories Shakespeare tells in the four plays. Of necessity, this process involved significant cutting. Favorite speeches and characters had to go (including the only Irish character), and the action and relationships had to be streamlined. What emerged for him in the process was the anti-war story contained within what appears to be a celebration of war, especially in Henry V. To that end, O’Rowe engages in some “difficult rearranging of scenes” to conclude not on the triumphant union of Henry V and Katherine of France, as Shakespeare does, but rather on a more somber and haunting note in which some who inhabit those ever-expanding graves return — grim reminders that the death of kings involves the deaths of many, many more.

As for those kings and the crown of thorns they so covet, DruidShakespeare makes clear that the relationship between power and those who would wield it is a union that brings out the worst. The irresponsible become dangerous, spoiled children. The uncertain crumble under unending anxiety. And the cold-hearted learn to kill without remorse.

Joseph Whelan is the publications director at Syracuse Stage and an adjunct instructor in the Syracuse University Department of Drama.

Details Box:
What: DruidShakespeare: The History Plays
Who: Druid Theatre Company, at the Lincoln Center Festival 2015
Where: Gerald W. Lynch Theater, New York
Performance reviewed: Saturday, July 11, 2015
Time: Seven and a half hours, with three intermissions (may be seen over two nights)
Adaptor: Mark O’Rowe
Director: Garry Hynes
Remaining performances: July 17 ( Part 2 only); July 18 and 19 (Parts 1 and 2)

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