In celebration of its 40th anniversary, Druid Theatre Company, a small powerhouse of an Irish theater company has decided to tackle the greatest writer of all time. DruidShakespeare: The History Plays is a 7 hour (with intermissions) saga directed by Tony award winner Garry Hynes and adapted by visionary playwright Mark O'Rowe, whose careful edits trace a single narrative through Richard II, Henry IV (Parts I and II), and Henry V. Though this will be the Druid Theatre Company's fourth Lincoln Center Festival appearance, it will be the first time the group presents Shakespeare. Longtime Druid company member and Belfast native Charlotte McCurry—cheerful as could be on the morning of her day off—sat down with Lincoln Center to discuss the joys and challenges of presenting Shakespeare with an Irish lens and a gender-blind cast.
Lincoln Center: DruidShakespeare just finished a tour around Ireland. How did that go?
Charlotte McCurry: It's typical of Druid to do regional tours. We get out to the farthest flung parts of the country that wouldn't normally have access to theater like this. We worked our way down the west coast and ended in Skibbereen, this beautiful, tiny little town in Cork, just for one night. The response from the audience was the best we've ever had. They remembered every Druid production for the past forty years. It was amazing. And after this we go back to a theater festival in Kilkenny, outdoors on the grounds of the castle that Richard II stayed in when he went on his Irish campaign. That will be crazy. It's living history!
LC: How do you feel about transitioning to a New York audience after such a rewarding tour?
CM: We're Irish people playing Englishmen and Welshmen, and we're doing it all in our own accents. So we find things funny that aren't necessarily funny. There's a bit in Richard II where Marty Rea, who plays Richard II, says: "We must supplant those rough, rug-headed kerns, which live like venom where no venom else. But only they have privilege to live." He's talking about the Irish. It's hilarious. Will Americans pick up on that and see how we flipped it and made it work for us? That's the kind of thing you wonder about.
LC: Over 60 characters appear in the Henriad, and you are a company of thirteen. How many characters do you play?
CM: I think nine. At the last count it was nine.
LC: What does it feel like to play so many characters?
CM: There's such camaraderie. Now we're more settled, but in our first shows after tech, we were running about backstage going, "Oh God, what costume am I wearing?" And there are costume ladies throwing something on you, and the crew saying you're this person next and you go on from that entrance. It keeps you on your toes. When you're playing one character, you get so deep into it. You're all stuck in your head. In this, there's more playfulness, more fun.
LC: What, for you, is the hardest part about Shakespearean acting?
CM: When you're speaking in verse, you can get really bogged down following the meter and the rhythm. That's been the hardest. There are a lot of little tips and hints that you learn when you train professionally. Many people think that there are firm rules, but that's not necessarily true. Marty Rea has helped me learn that. Just watching him onstage is a master class. I got stuck a lot, especially with the Queen in Richard II. She's a bit of a crybaby. I was speaking in verse and thinking, this doesn't feel right. I'm not getting the meaning of this. And Marty would tell me it isn't strict. It's a framework. It's there to help you. When you're stuck, go back to the human being and what she's feeling, and return to the verse after that.
LC: You also play a lot of comedic roles, like Doll Tearsheet in Henry IV Part II and Nim in Henry V. What's your favorite comedic moment?
CM: We've got a great scene in Henry V with Nim and Pistol, played by Aaron Monaghan. We have this tête-à-tête because Pistol has married this woman that I was engaged to—I play a man—and I'm furious. We draw our swords, then put them away, then one of us says something to annoy the other, and we pull them out again, maybe five or six times. That's a great craic. Shakespearean characters never censor themselves. They say what they mean, and they mean what they say. It's nice to play characters that are free like that.
You play both male and female characters. The rest of the women in the cast play men. Will you tell us a bit about Hynes's choice to implement gender-blind casting?
CM: I think it's brilliant. Druid has this ensemble of actors that Garry loves to work with. A gender appropriate cast would mean 15 men and maybe two women, and she couldn't do that. She wouldn't want to do that. Garry thought: "I want to look at my pool of actors and see —regardless of whether they are a man or a woman—who is the best person to play these parts." And that's what she did. It's just so liberating, to not have gender hold you back from playing a part. I wonder, is there any other playwright you could do that with except Shakespeare? That's the next step maybe.
Performances of The Druid Theater Company's DruidShakespeare: The History Plays run July 7-19 at the Lincoln Center Festival.