"Once more unto the breach," cries King Henry V to encourage his troops in the Battle of Agincourt, but it could also be the cry of the unified audience at DruidShakespeare as we begin our fourth play and our sixth hour of this theatrical marathon. For their 40th birthday, Druid Theatre Company have taken on their most ambitious project, to re-imagine Shakespeare's Henriad, his four history plays spanning the period 1380-1415, as one play spread out over almost seven hours.
Playwright Mark O'Rowe has shaped his own cohesive line to unite these four plays into a single dramatic behemoth. We are engaged, we are moved, we are unexpectedly amused. We witness betrayal, cruelty, slaughter, redemption. We are splattered with rain, vomit, peaty mud, blood against Francis O'Connor's deceptively simple pared back set. It is visceral, it is alive. It is also, crucially, gender blind. For as much as Shakespeare enjoyed putting his men in frocks, director Garry Hynes taps into huge power in casting her three kings. Unrecognisable as Richard II, Marty Rea is as if hovering between this world and the next. He is overthrown by his cousin Bolingbroke, a most effectively Derbhle Crotty, who becomes a bloodstained King Henry IV. While Henry reigns, his young son Hal enjoys life inhabiting taverns. But Hal must inherit the weight of the crown and become Henry V, and a stunning Aisling O'Sullivan gives the true powerhouse performance of this very tight ensemble cast of 13.
What is remarkable is how there is such energy and colour about the production that it rarely feels cumbersome, though sometimes this is at a cost of substance being sacrificed to frivolous levity. But this production is a huge achievement, Shakespeare is brought to life in a brazenly Irish way that gives the lines fresh meaning and relevance.