Forty years have passed since Garry Hynes, Marie Mullen and Mick Lally came together to form Druid. Mick Lally has passed away, and the two women are silver-headed dames of the stage. They have assembled a strapping company of 13 who play 100 characters in their latest exploit, DruidShakespeare.
Often referred to as The Henriad, these are four of Shakespeare's history plays: Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V. Mark O'Rowe has adapted Shakespeare's text for what amounts, with intervals, to seven hours of hardcore durational theatre. The cycle tours Ireland this summer and travels to the Lincoln Centre in New York.
Before going to see a classic it's always prudent to brush up on the text. If a play has survived we owe it that respect. Four plays seemed a lot to get through on the train to Galway that Saturday morning. As an experiment, I went in cold. What an arrogant notion that was.
Entering the theatre at 5pm I could only think about how I might be there until midnight. Seven hours. That was longer than a school day, back when our activities were set into timetables, not interrupted by phones and emails - when we weren't addicted to chats and distractions. But Shakespeare requires undivided concentration, so DruidShakespeare is better likened to an exam. I see that Leaving Cert English paper one takes 2 hours, 50 minutes, so it is more like sitting English papers one and two, and adding a third, English paper three.
Druid do indeed create an alternative universe to test our minds within. Women play men, men women. The stage is paved with soil. As the stories of deposition, betrayal and death progressed, graves were dug, which felt like being inside an Emily Dickenson poem, if you didn't know the history plays and your ideas started to stray.
When you lose the plot, there's no going back. Countless times I considered slipping out. Escaping. The visuals always seduced me back, the costumes a resplendent scrum of leather, studs, spikes, sequins, diamantes, metal, Doc Martins. But the loss of free will was my main focus. No matter how terrific the objective experience, I was still a subject, caught in a cycle of history plays.
I wondered what the others felt. The girl in the fawn coat as her cream skyscraper heels got coated in soil. The man from the bookshop, asleep at times. The broadcaster, asleep at times. The older gentleman walking with a cane, who got cold during Henry IV, Part 2. He stayed firmly in his seat at the third interval when they asked us to leave the house. "Do we have to go again?" he asked with a look of dejection that was a tragedy of its own.
Did people truly come to think about kinship and society? Or to say they had been? People went to be transported, spellbound. The mood was silent and reverent.
What everybody did seem to love were the transformations. That Marty Rea (below) could be King Richard dressed in robes, die, and come back as a corner boy with a Limerick accent. The idea Rory Nolan could be strangled to death as the king's aide, and reappear as the morbidly obese Falstaff, chomping on a chicken bone, the life and soul of the party.
The trickery of how they turned the very pretty Claire Barrett into a grotesque gnome by filling her face and teeth with rot and matting her hair. And it was the simplest lines that roused the house, the "Good king, great king, and yet not greatly good" style quips. The tweet-length sound-bites. Alas.
This was theatre lovers' theatre. Critics' theatre. For people with knowledge, etiquette, stamina. If you go to dinner at Shanahan's on the Green, you can eat oysters Rockerfeller, fillet steak with foie gras and lavish side platters. But you might not be able for it all that night. DruidShakespeare asks a bottomless pit of its audience.
If you go, you must work hard at it. Sleep well beforehand. Look up the plays. Don't drink. Give up your phone. It takes a colossal human heave to preserve the classics but the rewards are rich, I can only imagine.
DruidShakespeare tours Ireland and New York until 15 August. Druid.ie