Theatre review: DruidShakespeare, Mick Lally Theatre, Galway - 'Shakespeare brought to life in a brazenly Irish way'
‘Once more unto the breach’ cries King Henry V to encourage his troops back into the Battle of Agincourt, but it could also be the cry of the unified audience at the world premiere of 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, not only to stage Shakespeare’s Henriad, his four history plays spanning the period 1380 - 1415, but to have playwright Mark O’Rowe edit them into one dramatic event spread out over almost seven hours.
O’Rowe may begin at the beginning with Richard II, but he most successfully shapes his own cohesive through line to unite these four plays into a single dramatic behemoth. Speeches are left out and kept in, the ending is his own invention.
O’Rowe plays by his own rules, and they work. We are engaged, we are moved, we are horrified, we are unexpectedly amused. We witness betrayal, cruelty, rejection, 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 tights to play women, director Garry Hynes realises the power in how she cast her three kings, the characters’ genders remain the same but the players are not limited by their own.
Unrecognisable as Richard II, Marty Rea is as if hovering between this world and the next, vulnerable, childlike, blustering rages. He is overthrown by his cousin Bolingbroke, most effectively played here by Derbhle Crotty, who becomes a bloodstained steely King Henry IV. While Henry reigns, his young son Hal enjoys life with the lowly miscreants, inhabiting taverns and indulging in petty thieving. But Hal must inherit the weight of the crown and Aisling O’Sullivan gives the true carrying powerhouse performance of this very tight ensemble cast of 13 of our leading actors, transforming from raffish youth to worthy ruler.
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 levity. And there are some distractions in erratic costume designs, actor John Olohan clearly having picked the shortest straw.
But this production is a huge achievement, Shakespeare brought to life in a brazenly Irish way that gives the lines fresh meaning and relevance.