This year, the Lincoln Center Festival presents a theatrical experience that can only be described as epic. DruidShakespeare: The History Plays is a 7 hour (with intermissions) saga presented by Ireland's renowned Druid Theatre Company. Directed by Tony Award winner Garry Hynes and adapted by Mark O'Rowe, DruidShakespeare carefully distills the entire Henriad—Richard II, Henry IV (Parts I and II), and Henry V—into a continuous narrative. The cast delivers Shakespeare's verse using a wide palette of regional Irish accents which, combined with O'Rowe's edits, gives this English history a fresh Irish lens.
On the eve of the first day of previews, Rory Nolan, Druidshakespeare's Falstaff, met us in the lobby of New York City's WestHouse Hotel. Fans of the Lincoln Center Festival may remember Nolan for his roles in DruidMurphy back in 2012, when he appeared as Junior in Conversations on a Homecoming, Captain Shine in Famine, and Iggy in A Whistle in the Dark. Smiling behind his thick red beard, Nolan told us about the project's genesis, why Druid likes to get dirty, and what he's learned from the great Bard.
Lincoln Center: The Druid Theatre Company is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The choice to do Shakespeare is a departure from the company's traditional repertoire, correct?
Rory Nolan: [The company] has done it one of two times over the years, but it isn't its hallmark stuff. Druid is better known for the works of people like Tom Murphy, John Millington Synge, John B. Keane. Now, that said, this is undoubtedly a Druid production. When you come to see a Druid show, we like to think there's a robustness, an earthiness, a muscularity to the way we perform. That's our approach.
LC: The project is a result of close collaboration between director Garry Hynes and adapter Mark O'Rowe. How did the actors fit into this process?
RN: The project was in gestation for three years, though I know Garry had been thinking about it for a while before that. We workshopped Shakespeare's original text and Mark's edits. We kind of threw everything at it, then pulled it all back, then threw everything at it again. These are quintessential English history plays. Everywhere else in Europe, they've got the luxury of translation. The French can translate Shakespeare, and the Germans, and the Russians, and so on. But English is our first language, so how do we come at it from an Irish perspective? In a way, the edit that Mark has done is almost like a translation, because we make no apologies about speaking it in our own language. Mark talks about a 'respectful irreverence,' which I think is about the fact that some may see any edit of Shakespeare's work a sacrilege, but we wanted to streamline an excellent story arc and not make any apologies for our own culture, accents, or sense of dramatic self.
LC: Even with O'Rowe's edits, DruidShakespeare clocks in at roughly 7 hours (with intermissions). How have audiences taken to this length so far?
RN: Well, the longest you'll be sitting in the seat is, like, 90 minutes. Mark has done an exquisite job of streamlining the story so you get an arc from the first line of Richard all the way to the last line of Henry V. The story clips along at a pace that I suppose I'd liken to something like Game of Thrones. And the reaction has been immense. We've had audience members come up and say, "I didn't want it to end! I wanted to know what happened next!" I think that's a testament to Mark's edits.
LC: We hear that the entire cycle is staged atop Irish peat, which turns to mud after some rainy battle scenes. Is that right?
RN: There is something about the peat that is inherently earthy and rooted. It's the kind of signature stuff that Druid will do. The Synge Cycle was done like that. When we did Famine as part of DruidMurphy, it was there. You think, "Oh my god, are they going to impose their PQ—peasant quality—all over Shakespeare's work?" But it isn't like that at all. The earthiness complements it completely.
LC: What's the cleanup like?
RN: I have no idea! [Laughs.] The theaters get mucky. There's a lot of blood, muck, water, drink. The shower is in constant use. People run off to use it, then rush back onstage as their next character. Sometimes they don't even have time.
LC: Can you tell us something that Shakespeare has taught you?
RN: One thing that's hit home for me is the value of human life, and what Shakespeare was trying to say in an age when, perhaps, it wasn't as cherished as it is now. It's quite seditious, what he says about power, corruption, spirit, God versus man. These are huge, epic themes and his characters are universal. They are of this world and for this world, and they should be enjoyed and respected, watched and performed, until the end of it.
LC: How does it feel to play Falstaff, one of the most iconic characters in all of Shakespeare?
RN: That was daunting. I was a bit apprehensive because I'm in my 30s, and this guy is in his 60s and grossly fat, which I'm working on [laughs]. One thing I didn't want to do was pander to the comedic element. The truth of him is very funny, and very sad, and I think he's Shakespeare's most intelligent character. He's a rascal, a rogue, a coward, a drunk. You could argue that he's a despicable human being—which he is—but he also embodies that gray area between black and white that's in all of us. It's the human condition, I think. He's dynamite to play.
LC: What is it like to work with Garry Hynes?
RN: So utterly painful. I'm joking! She's an incredible force, a wonderful director, and a great friend. The thing with Garry is that it is all about the play. The ego is nonexistent because we are all committed to making the best piece of theater that we can. She instills that sense in all of us.
Performances of The Druid Theater Company's DruidShakespeare: The History Plays run July 7-19 at the Lincoln Center Festival. For more on the relationship between Shakespeare and Ireland, go to the free DruidShakespeare Symposium on July 9.