Director Garry Hynes -- perhaps best known stateside for being the first female director to win a Tony (for Martin McDonagh's Beauty Queen of Leenane -- had something in mind, of course, when she asked playwright Mark O'Rowe to put together a redacted, four-part treatment of William Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V for her Druid company. The umbrella title for the result is DruidShakespeare, and it's now boisterously at the Lincoln Center Festival 2015's Gerald W. Lynch Theatre at John Jay College.
Hynes had to be fully aware that fitting four plays that usually run close to three hours each into a five-hour-35-minute playing time meant that much of the Bard's excised dialogue would be left curling on the cutting-room floor. What she was after is plainly and yet highly theatrical: a concentrated version of Shakespeare's take on monarchic succession during a very particular period of English history.
The result? Let's just say that with, for instance, Henry V, trimmed to 85 minutes, something may be gained but some things are definitely lost. What's entirely gone -- yet undoubtedly not forgotten by the Shakespeare knowledgeables in the audience -- is the conquering king's wooing of the French princess as a further step to uniting the two countries.
And while there's no shortage of what many consider the playwright's greatest character, Falstaff, his utterances in Henry IV Parts I and II have been shortened. Perhaps my mind wandered, which would explain why I didn't hear the round-bellied man discourse on honor and its merely being a meaningless word, but perhaps my mind didn't wander, and the magnificent speech has been unceremoniously dropped.
This is all a way of saying that spectators waiting for their favorite scenes while fearing they could go missing due to time constraints should put those expectations aside and know that enough of their favorite sequences do remain. Henry V's morale booster perorations of the "We few, we happy few" ilk are intact and delivered with passion by Aisling O'Sullivan.
O'Sullivan, hardly by the way, is one of the many compensations Hynes offers for her truncated but not at all tepid evening. Aside from casting women -- like O'Sullivan as Prince Hal and eventually Henry V, Derbhle Crotty as the murderous and than guilt-ridden Henry IV and Druid veteran Marie Mullen undertake a series of men's roles -- she has John Olohan play Mistress Quickly in a hilariously swinging structural undergarment and with cute red bows in his full white beard.
The character assignments are only the beginning of the many rewards as the plays sprint by. There are the characterizations. At the very start, which is a startling start, Marty Rea enters slowly as Richard II. He's in scarlet robe (the many imaginative costumes are by set director Francis O'Connor and Doreen McKenna), and in white face with shaved head and wearing a gold crown that somehow looks like a crown of thorns. The suggestion carried through as Henry IV and Henry V don the headpiece successively is that ruling is an unavoidably thorny affair.
And Rea's introduction is only the beginning of cunning characterizations throughout. Crotty is able to show off Henry IV when he is still the scheming Bolingbroke in Richard II. Then, having instigated the king's death (Richard has already foreseen his demise in the "tales of the death of kings" speech), he's guilt ridden as he ascends the throne. And then he worries about his profligate son. Then he ages and dies, satisfied that Hal will forsake his rebellious inclinations.
Since Hynes's troupe is endlessly accomplished and versatile, big and small gem-like performances prevail during the seven-hour course. Patrons are advised to remember there are no small parts, only small actors, none of which are present here. (There are three intermissions, one a 45-minute dinner break).
Not a single actor in the 13-member ensemble fails to seize the opportunity given him or her to impersonate the many hims and hers populating the works. Aaron Monaghan is one of the most formidable seizers. Appearing as the volatile and violent Mowbray in Richard II (as well as Worcester and Exton), he eventually shows up in Henry IV Part II as the gimpy, hot-under-the-collar Pistol and in Henry V as Pistol, Chorus and the Dauphin. He's required to make many quick changes of costume and attitude and keeps up with it like the pro he obviously is.
Hynes is inspired for many of the scenes, not the least of which is the one in Henry V where the Dauphin and cronies prepare for battle, four of them flicking their swords with dandy-ish flair. Their outings are a hoot. Another rousing sequence takes place at Mistress Quickly's Cheapside tavern with Pistol making a wonderful nuisance of himself and the bawdy Doll Tearsheet (Charlotte McCurry) on hand. Hynes also makes something of the earlier mock Hal-Falstaff trials. The ending Henry IV Part II scene in which Henry V banishes erstwhile friend Falstaff is also stunning. To some extent and as it always is, this is the former Prince Hal's dismissing his surrogate father in loyalty to his biological father. Incidentally, to replace the French court as the Henry V denouement, Hynes and O'Rowe have shuffled the poignant sequence when Falstaff's cohorts mourn his death.
All four plays take place on O'Connor's generally abstract set where upstage crosses proliferating as bodies accumulate catch the eye. Painted walls lower and rise occasionally, one of the curtains a series of transparent strips behind which at one point the English army masses. There's also an upstage left contraption hung first with what look like balls and later with flowers. What it signifies is mystifying.
Yes, Hynes definitely gets across her thesis concerning what it takes forthrightly and deviously to lead a conflicted country. Therefore, on balance she succeeds with her usual mastery of craft.
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