Review: DruidShakespeare at the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2015

“The lining of his coffins shall make coats/To deck our soldiers for these Irish wars” declares Shakespeare’s Richard II. Delivered in Ireland by Irish actor Marty Rea, in the surrounds of a former seat of English colonial power, these lines took on a new significance in the Druid production. DruidShakespeare was an incredibly ambitious undertaking: four history plays, performed by thirteen actors, in a seven-hour event. Directed by Garry Hynes from an adaptation by playwright and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe, the production presented Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V as one continuous saga of power and ambition. The production opened at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York earlier this summer and it then formed the main event of the annual Kilkenny Arts Festival.  In Kilkenny, the play could be viewed either as a full cycle in one day or seen over two consecutive evenings. Though a seven hour Shakespeare marathon could appear to be a daunting task for many theatre-goers, the energy and pace of the action belies the duration of the performance. Cuts to the four texts were relatively seamless. Richard II was slow and steady with greater emphasis on movement, while the subsequent plays had a faster and more abrupt pace as the narrative developed.

O’Rowe’s approach to the script initially appears to deify Shakespeare, whom O’Rowe refers to in the programme as “the greatest writer.”  He compares cutting material from a Shakespearean text to “throwing away gold”. Yet the production itself reacts to the text in a rebellious rather than reverential manner.  The event has been hailed as one of the most significant Irish productions of the decade, and Druid certainly probed the history plays from many innovative angles. In both its Irish and American setting, the production demonstrated, but completely inverted, many of the central concerns of the four English history plays. The plays explore English identity and nationality, undercut by the Irish context. The production effectively explores imperial power in a post-colonial world.

In addition to nationality, the production explored gender. The casting is entirely gender-blind, interweaving a new discourse of gender into the narrative of patrilineal legacy in Shakespeare’s Henriad. Aisling O’Sullivan plays Hal (later Henry V), with Derbhle Crotty as Henry IV, Bolingbroke, and Montjoy. The ostensibly masculine concerns of kingship and heredity examined in Shakespeare’s verse are dissected by the female actors delivering the lines.

Druid Shakespeare - Aisling O'Sullivan as Henry V

Druid Shakespeare – Aisling O’Sullivan as Henry V

The Kilkenny leg of the tour lent a new dimension to the production through the spectacular setting of the courtyard of Kilkenny Castle. The environment of the Castle Yard almost recalls original staging conditions in early modern theatre, with an outdoor performance in a walled enclosure. Beginning at five o’clock and commencing just after midnight, the production encompassed daylight, sunset, and total darkness, the tension on stage heightened by the fall of night. The setting in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle furthers the Irish dimension to the production. When Henry V asks Montjoy “What is this castle called that stands hard by?” (IV. vii) it appeared almost a gesture towards Kilkenny Castle itself, looming over the courtyard mere feet away.

Kilkenny Arts Festival - courtyard. Photo credit: Micahel Waldron.

Kilkenny Arts Festival – courtyard. Photo credit: Michael Waldron.

The location was further utilised during the interval; as spectators walked out into the second courtyard they could observe a graveyard bearing the headstones of deceased characters, increasing in number at each of the three intervals. The seeming futility of the scheming and intrigues in the play was thus demonstrated effectively off stage. The epic concerns of kingship and state formation are linked with the more mundane tasks of grave digging and headstone carving.

A particularly effective touch was the appearance of all three monarchs together towards the end of the production. At his coronation, Henry V was joined on stage by a silent Henry IV and Richard II, in a cyclical coronation where the crown was passed between the three. This poignant moment drew the four plays together in a holistic performance that questioned identity, individuality, and nationality. With this production then, Druid has certainly thrown down the gauntlet for Shakespearean drama in Ireland.

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