Druid Theatre Company celebrates forty years of magic with Shakespear tour

Aisling O'Sullivan plays PrinceHal in DruidShakespeare.

Druid’s new touring Shakespeare project is a typically bold and ambitious venture, writes Padraic Killeen

THOUGH it feels like it’s always existed out there somewhere in the West of Ireland, as imposing as the Twelve Bens and the skyline that they tear at, Druid Theatre Company is but a tender 40 years old.

Set up in 1975 by Garry Hynes, Marie Mullen, and Mick Lally, the Galway company has long been the jewel of Irish theatre, boasting qualities — an independent spirit, a healthy sense of devilment, and a determination to stay close to the wellspring — that have also made it one of the most celebrated names in theatre worldwide.

The company’s name is an apt one, of course, seeming to encapsulate the earthy yet sublime aesthetics that Druid habitually traffics in. The inspiration for the name actually derived from an unlikely source — the Asterix comic strip.

Under pressure to put a company name down on a form for a bank loan, Hynes and her cohorts sat in a coffee shop in University College Galway tossing ideas about. Around them sat a pack of students, newspapers aloft as they essayed the daily crossword, and then the image of the cartoon druid (the delightfully named Getafix) popped into Hynes’s head.

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“There were all sorts of names coming up — dreadful names,” she recalls. “And either the druid character was running in the paper that morning and I saw it or else I was put in mind of it. In any case, we all thought, ‘Yes. The druids were the ancient Celtic priests who made magic — that’s it’. Of course we always thought, ‘It’s not a great name but sure we’ll change it when we get a chance’.”

The name didn’t change. Indeed, it has inscribed itself not just into the company’s identity but also into the hard bedrock of Galway city itself, becoming the name of the small lane — now Druid Lane — in which the company acquired its modest 120-seater theatre in the late 1970s.

That same theatre this week plays host to Druid’s newest production, DruidShakespeare, which digests the four plays of ‘The Henriad’: Richard II, King Henry IV Parts I and II, and Henry V — into one dramatic six-hour telling. It’s a typically bold, large-scale project, of the kind that the company has specialised in since the Leenane trilogy that blew away Broadway in the late 1990s. The show kicks off in Galway before embarking on an Irish tour and then heads to the US.

Famously, the four ‘history plays’ make explicit and covert references to Ireland, and the military conflict absorbing England and Ireland at the time Shakespeare wrote them. Hynes, however, says she wanted to tackle the plays on their own merits, without all the postcolonial baggage impinging on them.

“I’ve always pondered how do you do these plays in Ireland,” she says. “How do you do them without pleading for some special coding where one understands that Ireland is being referred to, that a character like Glendower, the Welsh leader in Henry IV, is generally accepted as being a stand-in for Hugh O’Neill? All these issues are complicated, and I envied other European nations that could take these plays on their own terms because they have the distance of translation.”

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The new Druid production doesn’t translate or alter Shakespeare’s language, but it does ‘edit’ the texts. The project only became a reality once Hynes persuaded acclaimed playwright Mark O’Rowe (Howie the Rookie, Terminus) to knit together the four plays, while truncating them slightly. O’Rowe — who Hynes knew to be a “complete Shakespeare-head” — was someone “who could go up against the dialogue, and also someone who could stand in for Shakespeare and protect Shakespeare”.

One of O’Rowe’s first moves was to axe McMorris, the prototypical ‘stage-Irishman’ in Henry V, a peripheral character, yet one who has launched a thousand dissertations on Shakespeare and Ireland. “He’s a relatively minor character in terms of what our needs were,” says Hynes. “So, it was, ‘Right, get rid of him’.”

Parking Ireland to one side, these are simply brilliant plays — some of Shakespeare’s greatest works, which feature many of his most moving soliloquies as well as some of his richest characters: Richard II, Prince Hal, and the magnificent Falstaff. Surely to God, they’ve not cut Falstaff, have they?

“No, we haven’t cut Falstaff,” Hynes laughs. “We most certainly haven’t, even if there have been times when I dearly wished we had — and cut the actor playing him.”

The actor playing him is the ever-dependable Rory Nolan, a Druid stalwart and a man whose stage persona would seem well-fitted to Shakespeare’s lovable scoundrel, even if he does seem a little young for the part.

This, however, is another radical move that Hynes’s production is making — something she describes as “gender-blind” and “age-blind” casting. In short, what it means is that Nolan is playing Falstaff while Aisling O’Sullivan plays Prince Hal and Derbhle Crotty plays King Henry IV.

“The decision was taken that we were going to cast the 13 best actors we could find and they were going to play whatever roles appeared appropriate,” says Hynes.

“We’re not making any attempts to suggest to the audience that the women who play kings are not women, or that Rory isn’t a younger actor rather than an older one. An actor always has to act as someone they are not. So in this case we’re asking why can’t you act another sex?”

Of the 40 years of Druid, Hynes has been at the helm for almost all of it, barring a short period in the early 1990s when she ran the Abbey. At 61, she seems no lessimpassioned, but she has begun to think about when she will hand over the reins and what she wants to achieve in the years before then. There are hopes the company’s theatre space — now named the Mick Lally Theatre in honour of the late actor — may be extended to a larger auditorium.

Besides that, Hynes says she would most like to achieve security for the company, to prevent it from becoming institutionalised, and to ensure it remains a space for uniquely engaged and committed artists. “It’s how to protect that, that’s the hardest thing of all,” she says.

DruidShakespeare tour dates: Mick Lally Theatre, Galway, May 9-30; An Grianán, Letterkenny, June 3-6, Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo, June 9-13; Royal Theatre, Castlebar, June 17-20; Lime Tree, Limerick, June 23-27; Town Hall, Skibbereen, June 29; Lincoln Centre, New York, July 7-19; Kilkenny Arts Festival, Aug 6-15.

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