Saturday 18 November 2017

Theatre: 'Henriad's' brutal power

Henry V by Druid Shakespeare
Henry V by Druid Shakespeare

Emer O'Kelly

Maybe it's cheek: an Irish theatre company whose concentration has traditionally been on drama in the folk genre taking on one of the magnificent monoliths of English drama: Shakespeare's Henriad, the four plays which trace the history of England from 1377 to 1422, a time of unprecedented turbulence and political intrigue. And there could be another fear: that parochialism might rear its head, and the treatment might try to put Ireland at the centre of the dramatic and political equation.

One suspects that there was a time when Druid's artistic director Garry Hynes might have been guilty of the latter; but theatrical objectivity comes thunderingly to the fore in her treatment of Richard II, Henry IV parts one and two, and Henry V. The result is a dark sweep of primal power among a people who regarded themselves as among the masters of the world, ruling or aspiring to rule much of what was known and regarded as the civilised world.

That they did it from the power base of middle England and had to maintain international pre-eminence while watching their own backs in the in-fighting known as the Wars of the Roses makes for an enthralling sweep of glorious, bombastic, heroic and treacherous drama. The four plays have been not so much adapted as edited down - redacted if you will - by Mark O'Rowe. Some of the sub-plots have been lost, as have several of the characters. Others have become larger, serving as prototypes for the manner in which the kings in their separate ways conducted their affairs of State. But very little has been lost in power, drama, and effectiveness in this six and a half hours of theatre, performed in the tiny home space of Druid's Mick Lally Theatre in Galway.

At the start we see "England" complacent and petulant by turns, foolishly secure in the Plantagent person of Richard II, according to history a cultured monarch, exercising his apparently supreme power when he exiles his ambitious, driven young cousin Henry Bolingbroke. Old John of Gaunt, begetter of the line, and Henry's father, can only watch helplessly, knowing he himself will not live long enough to prevent tragedy.

After John's death Richard's greed leads him to confiscate the old nobleman's vast wealth, giving Bolingbroke the excuse to return under the pretext of reclaiming his family's fortunes. Alarmed at an autocracy outrageous even by the standards of the time, several of the great families support Bolingbroke in forcing the king to abdicate.

History is not clear as to whether Henry ordered the murder of Richard in prison, but Shakespeare gives him the benefit of the doubt, and the first play ends with young Henry IV vowing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in expiation for the hideous and ignoble murder.

But only darkness lies ahead in Part Two with rebellion along the Welsh borders, and the young Harry Percy of Northumberland flexing his military skills. But division between Scots and Welsh insurgents leaves Henry IV triumphant at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, and Harry "Hotspur" Percy dead at the feet of the King's ne'er do well son who has been brought to a realisation of his royal duties.

From being the carousing Prince Hal, he will become Henry V, a monarch whose sense of justice is as full of terror as he believes his destiny must make it.

That sense of purpose gives Shakespeare one of his most memorable scenes, Henry V's call to arms to his countrymen before the Battle of Agincourt against the French "upon St. Crispian's Day" in 1415.

Hynes and O'Rowe, aided by David Bolger's movement direction and Donal O'Farrell's fight scenes encompass the horrible breadth of the two battles to stunning effect, but perhaps the most spine-chilling moment comes in "Richard" when the king's "blood-boltered" body is flung in the mire at the feet of his usurping successor. That effect is achieved not least by the prior performance of Marty Rea's Richard, white-painted, simpering and orchidaceous in his courtly magnificence, a man serene in sexual licence as much as in political power, dangerous and pitiable by turns.

Contrast comes hard on his heels with Derbhle Crotty's strutting young Henry IV, disintegrating into age and enfeebled realisation of the impermanence of power, enhanced ( perhaps too pointedly) by the "feminisation" of the dying king in Crotty's flowing black chiffon nightgown, her hair hanging loose across her shoulders.

Aisling O'Sullivan as Henry V shows no such weakness in dress or manner, yet her performance, while well beyond adequate, carries less conviction and defiant thrust than either Rea or Crotty.

For the rest, there's a splendidly-layered Falstaff from Rory Nolan, with Garrett Lombard an impetuous and impressive Hotspur, Bosco Hogan excellent in a number of support roles, particularly as old John of Gaunt, and John Olohan effectively larger than life as Mistress Quickly. Good comic performances too from Clare Barrett as Bardolph, Aaron Monaghan as Pistol, and Charlotte McCurry as Doll Tearsheet.

Francis O'Connor's set, disintegrating into a mudbath under torrents of rain, is as audacious as it is effective , with Doreen McKenna's costumes equally evocative. Lighting and sound are respectively by James F Ingalls and Gregory Clarke in a production which may well turn out to have been one of the resounding successes of an Irish theatrical generation.

A meat cleaver and a stomach (human) were two of the memorable elements in Lee Coffey's first play Leper+Chip. They connected to each other.

His new offering is Peruvian Voodoo, where the connecting element is a large bag of small red pills. With only a couple of the pills inside them, three very different men have a havoc-ridden day in the Dame Street area of Dublin.

Okay, some of the elements are a bit eyebrow-raising: with the current state of book publishing in Ireland, it's unlikely that a publisher, even a self-styled smoothie one, would have a car and a driver at his disposal. And it's unlikely that in the small world of the same Irish publishing scene, the smoothie publisher wouldn't have an inkling that the author of a promising manuscript is actually the Number Two in the tiny office of his best friend, also a Dublin publisher. Too many co-incidences, just as there is a spooky similarity between their extremely bad pill trips and that of the homeless beggar over whom a number of people trip. Said beggar also displays a level of magnanimity in dealing with other people that, sadly, is usually well beaten out of those who have to survive on the streets.

But in the context of Peruvian Voodoo, so what? It's a wild trip through the insanity of three men with half-fried brains. It's as ugly as it's funny, and the message is as sobering as it is street-wise. Coffey fits his writing into a kind of Raymond Chandler genre with the addition of profanity and 21st-Century sexual crudity that would probably have made Chandler blush.

He is well served by Laurence Falconer, Finbarr Doyle and Kevin C Olohan as the three protagonists, despite everybody in sight, including Coffey himself as director, needing to take it down a fair few pegs and octaves. It's at Theatre Upstairs at Lanigan's Bar on Eden Quay in Dublin.

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