THE reaction to Druid Theatre Company’s staging of not one, but four of Shakespeare’s plays and merging them into one thrilling drama has been universally positive, yet it could have all been so different.
Persuading audiences to attend six hours of theatre - or at least two abridged sittings - is not easy. It helps that Druid are known as one of, if not the most, innovative and adventurous touring companies in Ireland.
Headed up by veteran theatre producer Garry Hynes - directing DruidShakespeare here, as it is known - this is, she admits, probably Druid’s most ambitious project to date in a storied history that runs to its foundation in Galway in 1975, with an aim to “create electrifying theatre experiences for every person in every place and every time we perform”.
Druid has been to the Lime Tree most recently with stunning productions of the Colleen Bawn last year and its DruidMurphy series of plays by playwright Tom Murphy, with which it has been associated - along with JM Synge - for more than 20 years.
But the Shakespeare project - taking in Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 & 2), and Henry V - relied heavily, Hynes says with a poetically phrased doffed cap, on Mark O’Rowe, who “pared down” Shakespeare’s four history plays into an epic theatrical experience.
“We knew if we wanted to do this plays, we needed an editor - we needed, if you like, a living stand in for Shakespeare,” says Hynes of the writer, whom Druid commissioned to adapt the plays, which run concurrently and offer a chance to see how the characters evolve in the Bard’s re-telling of English history, albeit “through an Irish lens” in this production.
“Mark was the only person I wanted to do it, and when he agreed, that is when the project was green lit. He has done this extraordinary job retaining the essence of the characters and the stories, and yet compressing it into such a fast moving, fluent telling of the story,” she adds.
Crucially, O’Rowe has attained a “clear” telling of the stories, the major ambition to encourage people to view Shakespeare through a new prism.
“The big task, when we set out do it, was that we wanted audiences to come out of that and say they understood all of that. I think people are afraid sometimes about Shakespeare that they won’t understand it like they would an Irish or contemporary play,” says Hynes.
“They may be stories of the history of our great colonial neighbour, but we treat them as stories from even a fantasy land or whatever. We took them on faith as the stories they are, rather than attempting to superimpose some kind of Irish telling of the stories.”
Hynes has blurred the lines between identity in the plays, taking the very conscious - and brave - decision to cast female actors for leading male parts, and vice versa. For instance, of the three kings in the plays, two are female and one is male.
“It was a very, very big decision - one we made about a year ago. We did a series of workshops on the pieces and then decided that we would gender blind cast; cast the best actors for the roles, regardless of their gender,” she explains.
“It has been incredibly liberating, I must say. I think, in as much as colour blind casting is now completely acceptable, I think that in 20 or 30 years time, gender blind casting will equally be the norm.”
Garry admits to being overwhelmed by the reaction to the plays and the “event performance” nature of the production, as she refers to it. The tour will continue from Limerick to Skibbereen and on to New York. She clearly believes that the four plays lend themselves to such an ambitious project as this.
“It is fantastic, one of the best reactions Druid has ever had to anything,” she says. “Obviously we like to do event projects like this, I think they create a particular excitement both for ourselves in making them and for our audiences in watching them.
“They do lend themselves to this kind of telling, in the sense that we meet characters over three of the plays in some cases, and their offspring - so you are watching lives of people, and you are watching them in taverns, on the battlefield at war, at peace, it is everything in there but the kitchen sink, and sometimes that as well.”
DruidShakespeare runs in the Lime Tree Theatre from June 23-27