What is the Irish Shakespeare? This is not to ask for an Irish equivalent, but to define an Irish approach to a British icon. It could be said, from recent Irish productions of his works, there's an effort to undermine some ideas that form the foundation of the plays; such as The Abbey's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which took a story thematically orientated to youth and vitality and dropped it into an incongruous nursing home. Or perhaps more relevant: The Abbey's King Lear with its Celtic aesthetic; a synthesis continued here with Garry Hynes' slimmed (but still hefty) Henriad.
DruidShakespeare brings us Shakespeare's History series: Richard II, Henry IV (part one and two), and Henry V, a sequence of plays some refer to as The Henriad, and give it a distinctly Irish flavour. Its "England" is a minimalistic stage of soil and steel, appearing as a happy marriage between a bog and a meat factory. Richard, the doomed monarch of the play's first part is brilliantly moody, played by a spookily white Marty Rea; full of explosive joy and plummeting despair, dancing between comic and horrific. This dance continues past Richard's downfall into Henry IV, as the grave, guilty seriousness of Derbhle Crotty's Henry is contrasted with Rory Nolan's bumbling Falstaff and the Eastcheap crew. It's this point of the (very) long play that interest begins to wan; the loss of Marty Rea's Richard is only partially compensated by Derbhle Crotty's noble and sympathetic Henry IV. Aisling O' Sullivan makes for a much too haughty and stiff young Prince Hal; his pranking of Falstaff is more mean-spirited bullying rather than charming ribbing, and the expressionistic take on the battle feels much too anti-climactic after the tense build-up to the confrontation with Harry Percy and co. Henry IV part two follows this lull, though it benefits greatly from its abridgment (Part two unabridged has a few too many acts). The play once again finds it's comfort spot in Henry V; Aisling O' Sullivan is a much better King Henry than a Prince Hal, as she gives the plays numerous speeches with the necessary grandeur; and peppering of Aaron Monaghan ludicrous, growling Pistol adds some welcome levity.
Drama critic Fintan O'Toole wrote that DruidShakespeare asks "How can a state rid itself of the chaos and violence from which it emerges?" That key words, "violence" permeates the play, with deaths accompanied by spurts of blood. Similarly, "chaos" is a good descriptor of the play; its mood is borderline schizophrenic with its shifts from serious drama to farce. Henry V's comical French opponents prance around the stage with their ineffectual fencing one moment, and not long after we see them brutally executing Henry's soldiers. If the play offers a solution to Fintan O' Toole's question , it's by purging the state of its misfits, of its loose cogs. As Henry V's rejection of Falstaff breaks him, through his war with France, Henry cleanses his state of the rest of the comic misfits, petty thieves and fools who have no place in Henry's vision. Astutely, DruidShakespeare has these misfits rise from their deaths as a lingering elegy to flawed humanity crushed in the machinations of a state.
Is this a definitive Irish take on Shakespeare? Who can say. But DruidShakespeare c certainly delights itself in its wrestling with its source material, with small ironies such as Henry IV referring to himself as a true born Englishman when this play's Henry is neither English nor a man. It delivers on drama and laughs; and manages to entertain despite a slight dip in the middle, which is impressive for a play five-plus hours long.