Of the various genres of Shakespeare’s plays, the history plays (with the exception of maybe Richard III) tend to be the least often performed. Compared to the more well-known and reliable tragedies and comedies, the histories (which revolve around the times and wars of English kings) can be dense, uneven and full of exposition. Even the so-called “problem plays” (All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure) are seen more frequently.
Garry Hynes, director of Ireland’s prominent Druid Theatre Company, recently returned to Lincoln Center Festival (where it has previously offered the works of John Millington Synge and Tom Murphy) with DruidShakespeare: The History Plays, in which Mark O’Rowe’s abridged adaptations of Richard II, Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II and Henry V were presented with a 13-member Irish cast. Their lengths varied, with Richard II at just under two hours and Henry IV, Part II at about an hour. All four plays could be viewed together on a Saturday or Sunday marathon.
The design scheme was purposely gloomy: a stage covered in earth with graves in the background, as if to stress the fields on which the battles are fought and their human toll. There was also a skull at the side of the stage, which is occasionally adorned with a crown.
Some of the productions (Richard II, Henry V) were better than others, and the same could have said about the performances (no one came close to equaling Marty Rea’s exquisite, emotionally heightened Richard II), though everyone’s diction was superb. Rory Nolan’s sympathetic Falstaff was nicely understated in a role that often attracts hammy theatrics.
Cross-gender casting is an important Shakespeare tradition, but Hynes’ decision to use it for just a few of the major roles (Derbhle Crotty as Henry IV, Aisling O’Sullivan as Henry V) for no discernable reason was ineffective and self-conscious. John Olohan’s purposely ridiculous Mistress quickly loses its comedic value after the first few minutes.
Taken as a whole, DruidShakespeare proved to be a valuable opportunity to experience the four history plays as a coherent, extended narrative about different families falling into and out of power. It felt similar to binge-watching a season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. (Shakespeare fans may recall that film versions of these four plays were recently presented by the BBC in the Hollow Crown series.)
Here’s hoping that in a few years the company returns with DruidShakespeare: The Tragedies.