Review: 'DruidShakespeare' at Lincoln Center

Lily Kaufman

As you walk by the grave digger busy at work in the entrance of the Mick Lally Theater, the senses are instantly transported into a dark and earthy world in pleasant anticipation of DruidShakespeare’s acute attention to detail. Ireland’s touring theatre company, Druid, has produced a staggering six-and-a-half-hour presentation of Shakespeare’s Henriad, directed by Artistic Director Garry Hynes and adapted by Mark O’Rowe. A stunning, ensemble-driven production of recurring characters, DruidShakespeare affords audiences with the rare, albeit exhausting, experience of watching the crown of England pass three times on Irish soil before the curtain falls.

It seems the value in watching the development of these kings in succession is in being shown that the instability of power is infallible, and the fun, is watching characters grow and change from play to play represented by the same actors. The night begins with the last two years of the life and reign of Richard II, played by an unearthly and consuming Marty Rea. Richard is adeptly portrayed as startlingly abrupt; as gentle as he is grievous, as much a resolute child as he is an indecisive king. Rea’s commitment to these changes is moving, creating a three-dimensional character who carries us with him through the ceaseless tide of his unbridled emotions. We continue on to watch as the symbolic crown of thorns passes from the divine right of Richard II to the grounded presence of Henry IV, played by a commanding and text-savvy Derbhle Crotty. 

Aisling O’Sullivan’s performance of Hal/Henry V is a particular delight. She enters a bright light - young, charismatic and confident, if not loveably hedonistic. Steadily, almost imperceptibly, O’ Sullivan ages before our eyes into a responsible and worthy king, almost unrecognizable from the Hal of Henry IV part I. Rory Nolan’s Falstaff is honest and enjoyable, though the text seems to paint a portrait that is much less despicable than, perhaps, he is in his original form. John Olohan is a charming and un-ironic Mistress Quickly, with complimenting pink bows in his beard, offering a fun and diplomatic balance to the gender-bending. Marty Rea, Charlotte McCurry, Aaron Monaghan are impressively flexible in their various roles. And Marie Mullen, Bosco Hogan, and Garrett Lombard add a particularly steady and influential presence to the stage.

Francis O’Connor’s set design is a powerful nod to the thematic role of the earth in battle and in title. The Battle of Agincourt is fought under misty rain, the soft, wet soil brilliantly collaborates with the work of movement director David Bolger and fight director Donal O'Farrell: when bodies fall, they hit the muddy earth with their full weight, giving audiences a heart-rending glimpse of the full weight of war. James F. Ingalls lighting design serves the production by seamlessly transporting us from the open field to the small prison, with unexpected and beautiful transitions. O’Connor’s fantastic costumes, co-designed with Doreen McKenna, are a portrait of rebellion with classical flashes of dress you might expect from the tetralogy. Makeup was understated and gorgeous, always serving and never drawing unnecessary attention. Sound Design by Gregory Clarke and music by Conor Linehan.

O’Rowe’s work is thoughtful with a clear and precise sense of progression. The text has been judiciously cut, countering the understandable awareness of timing and length with a satisfying balance of the loaded and the light-hearted. This collaboration hints to a careful and considerate direction by Garry Hynes. Her bold exploration and undertaking of these plays has resulted in one seriously powerful production that will no doubt change the way Shakespeare is approached in Irish theatre. The real treat is in the conception: an Irish company performing the Henriad has an irony that gently underscores the entire production - if not glaringly highlighted or toyed with, its Irishisms are in its veins - in its comedy, its heart, and on the very soil it is played on. 

DruidShakespeare will be playing at the Lincoln Center Festival till July 19, before finishing it’s tour through Ireland.