SINCE its premiere in Galway last month, Druid’s latest theatre extravaganza, DruidShakespeare, has been showered with plaudits. Even Camilla Parker-Bowles has given the production a royal seal of approval.
Weighing in at a whopping six hours long, the show welds together the four plays of Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad’ — Richard II, King Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V — and does it with such charm and gusto that, in fact, the hours pass all too quickly.
At the centre of the whole thing, meanwhile, is one of the country’s finest actresses, Aisling O’Sullivan, best known for her TV roles in The Clinic and Raw.
In a brilliant piece of gender-blind casting, she plays Prince Hal, a gloriously complex ne’er-do-well who is destined to assume the throne.
O’Sullivan is relishing the part but admits she found the challenge of playing a male character a steep one at the outset.
“I found it difficult,” she says. “I started to question my instincts as an actor and also my instincts as a female — how I responded to scenes, and particularly to emotional scenes. I had to get very cognitive with it all. And that was a great learning curve for me.”
“And, then, Hal is also someone who eventually becomes a king, so he’s different anyway from the male/female dynamic. There’s another element in there. He eventually will become the leader of the pack. He’s been nurtured all his life to be a leader, and that makes his reactions interesting, because at the back of his head all the time he is aware that he is going to have to take on a massive responsibility at some point.”
Indeed, while Druid’s reworking of the Henriad mythos boasts royal conspiracies, bloodshed, and bawdy humour galore, the central theme underlying it all is the necessity of assuming responsibility for one’s life and one’s actions.
Prince Hal, this seeming rogue and waster, in fact, hides his strong light beneath a bushel. As a son, he may query his sense of filial duty, yet he also comes to accept his responsibilities, assuming a life of rule and order, even though he feels the tug, too, of chaos and abandon.
“He has a sadness in him,” says O’Sullivan.
“He’s sad the whole way through and it doesn’t really lift. And I feel that it has to do with his relationship with his father, with Henry IV. There’s an enormous amount of guilt that Henry IV ends up carrying, and, in many ways, Hal has to take on that burden as well, and to try to make restitution for it.
“I must say I really, really love the character now, but I did struggle with him at the beginning. Also, it was my first Shakespeare, and I was absolutely terrified, wondering how I could possibly remember all those words.”
In addition to remembering the words, she was also charged with remembering her Ps and Qs when Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, landed in to view part of a performance in Galway last month.
“She was lovely and very gracious,” says the actress. “And it was a big honour for Druid. Garry Hynes was the hostess and invited Camilla inside and introduced her to everyone. She was a very charming person.”
More important personages still will be in attendance when DruidShakespeare visits Limerick and Skibbereen over the next week. O’Sullivan’s parents will travel from the home place in Traleeto see her.
“They go everywhere to see me,” she says. “They think I’m marvellous!”
Does she feel a particular thrill in performing in the south of the country?
“I do,” she says. “The older I get the stronger I feel the pull in me. And I love performing down there. I like being around that countryside in which I grew up — it’s nourishing.”
PRINCE HAL is just the latest in a long line of star turns that O’Sullivan has delivered for Druid.
Among them was a sterling performance as the Widow Quin in The Playboy of the Western World in 2003 and, more recently, a typically spiky turn as the heroine of John B Keane’s Big Maggie.
Indeed, Druid’s artistic director Garry Hynes has had a considerable hand in O’Sullivan’s career. It was Hynes who signed her to a year’s contract at the Abbey Theatre in 1991, when the young Kerry girl was fresh out of the Gaiety School of Acting.
The actress seems to embody the traits that have marked so many of the actors at Druid, past and present; a certain robust earthiness and strength of character. The latter, of course, has fed into some of O’Sullivan’s roles, both onstage and onscreen.
Many would recognise her more recently as the steely restaurant owner, Fiona, in RTÉ’s Raw, and the actress seems drawn to iron-willed characters.
“Which is amazing — because I’m a total wimp,” she laughs.
“I am very drawn to those characters. I really love people who’ve been through stuff and who are misunderstood. For example, Big Maggie can come across as just a bitch and witch, but there’s enormous range of colour beneath her — of love and beauty and grace. Human beings are amazing and I find that the ones that are difficult to understand have such hidden depths.”