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Gender-Reversed Casting Can’t Save Plodding ‘History Plays’ Marathon


When King Henry V steps downstage and speaks about “we happy few, we band of brothers,” he seems to address the flagging audience at the end of this seven-hour marathon drama — even though he’s talking to the battle-weary English battalions bringing France to its knees. Or is it my imagination? Like the army falling in line behind a commander (no matter who and why), we spectators — united in fellowship — have followed a series of monarchs, too, watching a dizzying succession of executions, depositions, and coronations.

Galway’s Druid Theatre Company — by now predictable guests at the Lincoln Center Festival — are best known for modern Irish repertory such as the J.M. Synge and Tom Murphy cycles presented in 2006 and 2012. Druid has also long affiliated with plucky contemporary dramatists such as Martin McDonagh. This year the troupe returns with yet another marathon cycle: four of Shakespeare’s history plays compressed into seven hours with reasonable efficiency by adaptor Mark O’Rowe.

“DruidShakespeare” kicks off with Richard II, tracking the overreach and fall of a childish, impulsive ruler (Marty Rea) — marked as a spectral corpse from the start by his powder-white face. Next, in Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2), Richard’s former challenger Henry IV (Derbhle Crotty) tries to hold together this sceptered isle through crusades, while his wayward son Hal (Aisling O’Sullivan) cavorts in a dive tavern with the errant knight Falstaff, learning princely lessons about honor and valiance from undesirables. By the fourth and final play, Henry V, Hal, newly installed as King Henry V, tries to shed his past and lead England to victory over France, becoming the man his scorned father hoped.

This bardy conglomeration marks something of a departure for director Garry Hynes, whose reputation — like Druid’s — rests on newer dramas. Given the history plays’ place in the formation of English nationalism, they also make an unusual choice for Ireland’s best-known ensemble. When the curtain comes down, however, national aspects largely look parenthetical (at least, to American eyes): Sure, things feel a little weird in Richard II, when the Tudors speak (in Irish inflections) of suppressing the Irish in a far-off war. But otherwise the cast offers traditional — which is to say labored and declamatory — approaches to Shakespeare; amid fencing, tights and tunics, and martial drumbeats, the accents soon melt into the blandness. (Another bad sign: The fog machine never seems to stop blowing wartime “atmosphere” from the wings.)

Hynes’s boldest choice lies not in lumping together four plays and not in some postcolonial exploration of English history. More significantly, she casts women in a range of male roles, from counselors to kings, in a cycle that’s famously all about fathers and sons. This could have been fashioned as a daring director’s move, exposing the repeating political psychologies across generations, as each king learns to consolidate power through violence — the male way, as it were.

But in a production built on stodgy acting and leaden design, these gender reversals don’t actually illuminate much. Instead of observing how these monarchs perform their authority and legitimacy, the Henrys invest everything in establishing their inverted gender. Same thing, you say? Potentially, but not in this case. Crotty (as Henry IV) adopts a low, husky voice and a rigid, dignified posture, but ends up with more demeanor than characterization. O’Sullivan, as Hal, seems especially trapped in a portrayal of masculinity, strutting and barking commands with a blunt affect that overpowers other facets of the prince’s persona. In case we missed the connections during the first six hours, Hynes brings the three rulers onstage for a heavy-handed tableau in the final moments; silently they pass the tainted crown from one head to another. It’s history laid bare, but drained of theatrical lifeblood.

DruidShakespeare: The History Plays
By William Shakespeare
Lincoln Center Festival
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