Death, in DRUID SHAKESPEARE: THE HISTORY PLAYS, is an invading parasite. Crosses accumulate on grave mounds like sprouts from bulbs, lives owed, as someone says, to God, payment, with interest, for birth in the world. The plays essayed by this Irish company are four in seven hours – the tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV 1 & 2, and Henry V – the persons in them living, or dying, some, like Richard II, inside a single play, others, from one to another, threads that piece together a tragic history, of power and its relation to mortality.
The critic Jan Kott’s “Grand Mechanism,” that sees the history plays as a repetion of reigns, rebellions and usurpations, is full alive in the Druid experience. I half expected the maggot visage of Richard in the first play, and his chalky bald knoll, to reappear in the monarchs who succeeded him. Indeed there was a hint of it, during the final play, in the pale-faced ire of Henry V. It is, in any case, there in the death’s head, perpetually stage-right, on which, when no king bears it, the crown is regularly disposed.
Lincoln Center Festival offers the four plays in a marathon, with a box lunch at the mid-point, or in sets of two. Put your chits, if possible, on the marathon. I can’t imagine that letting things sit for a day or two, or seeing one half or the other, has a similar power. The plays have been astutely edited, and boldly, dispensing with one after another of their most famous speeches, by Mark O’Rowe, not as a whole new work but a distilled essence. This, I thought, is what the tetralogy is at base: a power play of mythic proportion, kings and rebels rolling in one after the other, marbles down chutes, in a Goldberg machine, greatness thrust, for no great reason, on the winners, and on the defeated, ignominy.
It is within this greater pattern that the private dramas of the story are made to nest and play out. The petulant poesy of Marty Rea’s Richard II, his sufi skirt draped, over his pink naked feet, like some eccentric sleepwear, conveys not just his ineffectuality as king, but his cruelty. Hal’s meanness to Falstaff is there from the start: he is a cog, moving mechanically to crush, in the end, his friend, and the French too, when he becomes king. Both Hal and his father, Henry IV, are played by women, Aisling O’Sullivan and Derbhle Crotty; that the casting, from top to bottom, is gender neutral is helped along by the mechanistic ethos. The father-son drama still roils, in the interaction of Hal and the king, but what matter, ultimately, if this or that piece of the machinery is man or woman?
The neutrality of the casting doesn’t eliminate stereotyping, although it is more of maleness than femininity: Crotty’s exaggerated breathiness and uprightness of stance, the forced masculinity of O’Sullivan’s kingly growl. The two are compelling anyway, as, also, are the ensemble that surround them, there, in the vision of director Garry Hynes, to tell a story, not to present it in naturalistic detail. So they do, of a king overthrown, and murdered in his cell, of the guilty successor and his wayward heir, of the latter’s cruelty to his friends and his validation, as king, through war. The tale is not pretty, but it grips, and is leavened, at times surprisingly, with humor, its seven-hour trajectory modulated and never draggy. This is not the first and won’t be the last unitary production of these or the other history plays, but I have neither seen nor can imagine one more coherent, theatrically efficient, or, on so many levels, provocative.