Review Essay: DruidShakespeare at the Kilkenny Arts Festival

Of crowns, nations and memory machines:

Druid reimagines Shakespeare’s histories

Marty Rea as Richard II. Image by Matthew Thompson.

Marty Rea as Richard II. Image by Matthew Thompson.

Druid Shakespeare, in co-production with the Lincoln Center festival NYC

Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I and 2, Henry V, The Castle Yard, Kilkenny Arts Festival, 6 – 15 August 2015.

Director Gary Hynes, with adaptation by Mark O’Rowe

Cast and production details:

Reviewed by Stephen O’Neill

“What ish my nation”?, asks Captain MacMorris in Shakespeare’s Henry V, in a scene that brings together an Irishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Englishman supposedly united in the king’s ambitions to conquer France and thus expand his empery. It’s a scene that is frequently cut from modern productions of the play, perhaps because for directors it smacks of a Shakespeare too much the Elizabethan dramatist for modern sensibilities, or that it seems too easy a form of political symbolism. Druid follow suit in cutting the four captains scene and with it Shakespeare’s only Irish character in their ambitious production of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V), all adapted and deftly redacted in the careful hands of the contemporary Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe, with Gary Hynes’ directing. Omitting MacMorris might seem surprising considering how the pre-publicity for DruidShakespeare foregrounds the Irish subtexts to Shakespeare’s Henriad. Gary Hynes has been quoted as saying that “At the time when Shakespeare was writing these plays, Ireland would have been to England as Afghanistan is to the U.S. today”. In his preface to the programme, Fintan O’Toole remarks that the Tudor state’s bloody Nine years War against the revolt in Ireland “looms large in Shakespeare’s history plays”. It is the Tudor period’s Vietnam, he suggests, in that Ireland and the Irish wars simultaneously haunted and are refracted in the literature of the period, sometimes by indirection and sometimes – as in the instance of MacMorris and his resonant question – by overt, topical direction.  Shakespeare’s play is alert to the risks of such topical allegory, parodying it in the character of Fluellen, whose fondness for elaborate parallels is treated comically. Other mentions of Ireland in the cycle remain – ones that are true to Shakespeare’s sources but that become charged in the context of the Elizabethan wars in Ireland. In Richard II, the capricious yet vulnerable king talks of supplanting “rough rug-headed kerns” (an Anglicization of the Gaelic word ‘ceithern’ meaning foot soldier but here a derogatory catch all term for the native Irish), a line that at once encodes Elizabethan constructions of the Irish as barbarous and also expresses Richard’s own desire to demonstrate resolve, to do what English kings historically do. The peat-covered stage, a key visual element of Francis O’Connor’s evocative set design, reinforces connections between Richard’s intent to uproot the Irish rebels, his kingly image, and his mortality too. Indeed, in the post-performance interval at Kilkenny, a hooded man hastily buries Richard’s body out the back; as he piles up the soil, we audience members become silent witnesses to usurpation and murder. Such are the “sad stories of the death of kings”.

Marty Rea as Richard II. Image by Matthew Thompson.

Marty Rea as Richard II. Image by Matthew Thompson.

Precisely how DruidShakespeare understands itself as responding to the coincidence of Shakespeare’s great cycle of history plays with the Nine Years War is not absolutely clear. Why cut Mackmorrice from Henry V but retain Richard’s talk of usurping the Irish from their land? But the lack of clarity is ultimately a good thing. Previous productions in Ireland of Shakespeare’s histories struggled to make such topically and ideologically charged allusions work in a modern context. Ouroboros Theatre’s Richard II at the Abbey in 2013 sought to make sense of play’s Irish subtexts via more recent Anglo-Irish relations, with visual cues to IRA hunger strike and inclusion of U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. But ultimately these felt forced.

Druid and O’Rowe don’t seem concerned with forcing through connections between hundreds of years of Anglo-Irish relations (by the time Shakespeare is writing his plays, English interventions in Ireland are already three centuries old) as these are condensed and re-presented in literary texts like Shakespeare’s histories. Nor are they concerned with producing an overtly reactive post-colonialism by Hibernicizing Shakespeare’s cycle. Hynes has spoken of creating an emotional and physical landscape for the plays, an approach that she and the company also applied to their highly regarded Synge cycle. The production works because it allows us to consider how these plays make meaning on their own terms. DruidShakespeare recognizes too how a Shakespeare play is a spectral thing, made up of the ghosts of past performances, of critical interpretations, of audience expectations. Experiencing the plays over two consecutive nights (alternatively, one could see the four plays on one night), amplifies these sensations – going back to Castle Yard on the Sunday evening felt like a return to a group of people that one had got to know, and of whom you wanted to learn more.

Charlotte McCurry as Blunt, Clare Barrett as Bardolph, Rory Nolan as Falstaff and Aisling O'Sullivan as Hal. Image by Matthew Thompson.

Charlotte McCurry as Blunt, Clare Barrett as Bardolph, Rory Nolan as Falstaff and Aisling O’Sullivan as Hal. Image by Matthew Thompson.

This is, then, less an Irish Shakespeare than a production conscious of doing Shakespeare in and from Ireland. So, we hear Irish accents – both rural and urban – and one effect is to make plays that read like roll calls of English aristocratic families seem foreign. That sense of distance is created through the production choices more generally – from costumes with hints of current fashions to the welcome use of gender-blind casting to shake up what can otherwise seem like a relentlessly patriarchal, masculinist world. The audience is made conscious of the body beneath (especially in the deathbed scene of Henry IV Part 2 when Derbhle Crotty’s breasts can be seen through the nightgown). Such elements contribute to the feeling that the plays are being treated as representations, as self-reflexive constructions of history and historical figures.

To frame DruidShakespeare as an Irish approach to the plays would be to do the overall production and performance a disservice. The cycle deserves to be remembered for several standout performances. Marty Rea is captivating as Richard II. Avoiding a notable tendency of modern productions to play him in high camp or as suffering from a Jesus complex (as in Ben Whishaw in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown, 2012), Rea brings a subtlety to the role. His Richard is a man of many colours, despite his white face that recall portraits of Elizabeth as the Virgin Queen or perhaps the 1980s’ Dublin street artist The Dice Man. Rea also makes a memorable appearance at the opening of Henry V as the war mongering Archbishop of Canterbury, decked out here in graphite robes and mitre and with a delivery by Rea that recalls the booming auditory of Ian Paisley, the late Ulster Unionist politician. Derbhle Crotty’s Bolingbroke is played as proficient, intellectual and current by way of contrast to Richard who seems not fit for the times (an interpretation that may recall W. B. Yeats’s 1901 essay on the Henriad, “At Stratford-on-Avon”). Aisling O’Sullivan’s mischievous and mysterious Hal provides a foil to Rory Nolan’s genuinely funny Falstaff. In the tavern scenes, the production captures the play’s comic energy, and its recurring interest in this subversive terrain of Henry’s kingdom, as if to say this is home before any court scenes or battlefields. Gavin Drea as Poins and Clare Barrett as Bardolph bring a real presence to these supporting roles. At times, however, O’Sullivan’s Hal seems to spit out his words, and the vowels become so long and over-worked as to begin to sound like Felonious Gru from Despicable Me. The hyper-accent would make more sense in terms of Hal’s motivation to pass in Eastcheap among Falstaff and company, were it not for the fact that his soliloquy at the end of Act1, Scene 2 in which the prince compares himself to the sun obscured by clouds has been cut, perhaps to make his relation with Falstaff as surrogate father (and indeed mother) seem more enigmatic to audience members. O’Sullivan’s delivery is more effective when applied to Henry V, particularly his more jingoistic rhetoric. O’Sullivan brings an immediacy to “Once more unto the breach” which can all to easily lend itself to parody, directing the call-to-arms to the audience in Castle Yard – a space otherwise under-used in the production – as a small band of soldiers move in stylized, choreographed poses behind the young king.

Aisling O'Sullivan as Henry V. Image by Matthew Thompson.

Aisling O’Sullivan as Henry V. Image by Matthew Thompson.

Movement is another highpoint of this production. The bare stage and scaffold set is used very effectively, with the balcony put to good use especially in Aaron Monaghan’s energetic Chorus in Henry V. Mark O’Rowe’s adaptation also brings momentum to these history plays – pace and speed are achieved without the language being redacted too severely. O’Rowe’s adaptation foregrounds the essentially episodic structure of the plays, with rapid scene changes perhaps offering insight into Shakespeare’s own approach to the project of staging the complexities of the historical past.

O’Rowe’s style of adaptation is of the reverent kind. Yet, there is evidence too of a bolder, less respectful approach to the Shakespearean text. Henry V offers its audiences a double closure, the first with the king’s marriage to the Katherine of France, the second with the epilogue lamenting how Henry’s victories were quickly overturned during the reign of his son. In O’Rowe’s hands, however, we end with an interpolated, imagined scene that returns us to Eastcheap where in the company of Mistress Quickly, Pistol, Bardolph, Nym elegize Falstaff before setting off to war. The New York Times reviewer felt that this postscript over-sentimentalized the sacrifice of Falstaff to Hal’s political ambitions. Yet, the closing scene is less about sentimentality that about showcasing the affective intensities of Hal’s decision to reject Falstaff in the pursuit of power. The affect is all the more poignant given that the scene coincides with a darkening in the sky over Castle Yard that brings a stillness and focus to the stage.

In the postscript, we sense what has been lost, and watch with foreknowledge that further loss and suffering await Pistol and company on the “vasty fields of France”. We sense the casualties of war, the perils of treating a crown as a sign of immutable power, of history returning and repeating itself, and the violence done in the name of the nation. In this elegiac postscript, O’Rowe and Hynes distill the larger themes of Henry V and the entire cycle into more human terms. DruidShakespeare at once confronts and gives the lie to arguments that Irish theatre has an attenuated relation to Shakespeare. This is not an Irish appropriation of Shakespeare’s English histories so much as a rich dramaturgical and theatrical exploration of the dynamics of Shakespeare’s Henriad, and of the ghosts of history therein.

Marty Rea, Garrett Lombard, Aaron Monaghan (centre) and Bosco Hogan. Image by Matthew Thompson.

Marty Rea, Garrett Lombard, Aaron Monaghan (centre) and Bosco Hogan. Image by Matthew Thompson.

Dr Stephen O’Neill is a lecturer in English at Maynooth University. He is the author of Shakespeare and YouTube (Bloomsbury 2014), Staging Ireland: Representations in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama (Four Courts (2007) and several essays on the reception of Shakespeare. Twitter: @mediaShakes

2 thoughts on “Review Essay: DruidShakespeare at the Kilkenny Arts Festival

  1. Pingback: Review essay: Othello at the Abbey and Shakespeare in Ireland | Shakespeare in Ireland

  2. Pingback: Review: Lear by John Scott / Irish Modern Dance Theatre | Shakespeare in Ireland

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