Sympathy for the devil: how DruidShakespeare got to the soul of Richard III

For director Garry Hynes, the desire to portray this tortured king goes back years

On a cold weekend last November, Aaron Monaghan travelled to Galway with other members of Druid's ensemble to meet with a king.

This wasn't the theatre company's first brush with royalty. In 2015, director Garry Hynes's enthralling and epic staging of four Shakespearean history plays, DruidShakespeare, received a visit from the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles. Monaghan's audience with Richard III, however, or what was left of him, was conducted with less ceremony.

Richard, the infamous Yorkist king, should have been used to rough treatment. Killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 by the forces of Henry Tudor, there was little regal about him by the time he was rediscovered, just six years ago, buried in a crumpled heap beneath the site of a car park. The riveting facsimile of his skeleton that visited an exhibition in NUIG revealed his famously deformed spine, curved like a question mark by scoliosis, together with tell-tale marks to his face, and still uglier evidence of impalement on a sword after death, known – with some historian tactfulness – as “humiliation wounds”.

Monaghan already knew Richard III. He was the “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog” described in Shakespeare’s mesmerising dramatic portrait, “the poisonous bunch-backed toad”. He was an indelible role, with famed interpretations on stage and screen. For many, the discovery of Richard’s body felt as uncanny as if the body of Hamlet or Christy Mahon had recently been exhumed. Some characters loom so large, or hunched, in the imagination, it’s hard to reconcile them with reality.


In NUIG, Monaghan posed for photographs with the skeleton, conscious that he would soon be putting flesh on its bones.

On a bright morning in Dublin recently, early in rehearsals for DruidShakespeare: Richard III, Monaghan and his director Garry Hynes tried to remember when they first found sympathy for this devil. The title of their new venture may give the appearance of a sequel to the company's earthy and bracingly Irish interpretation of Shakespeare's histories. But the desire to stage Richard III goes as far back as Monaghan's first work with the company, during DruidSynge. Hynes recalls a conversation about it on tour on Inis Meáin. Monaghan's own associations with the play goes back to childhood.

"I remember when I was 11 seeing a documentary on Anthony Sher's production [for the Royal Shakespeare Company, in 1984]. I found this weird thing he was doing quite fascinating."


Sher's performance, which he vividly detailed in his book The Year of the King, was famous for creating an energetic, lascivious Richard moving around spryly on crutches, like a spider. Monaghan hasn't found the documentary since, "so it might only exist in my imagination." As an acting student in Trinity, he was given a monologue from the play by his voice tutor. He still recalls breathlessly explaining the plot to his rapt classmates: "And then you won't believe what happens next . . ."

There was little debate among the Druid ensemble about who would play the lead. Among the roles Monaghan has previously performed for the company are the coiled and hopeful Billy in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan and the obsequiously twisted Danny in Boucicault's The Colleen Bawn – a CV distinguished, as his merciless friend and fellow performer Rory Nolan puts it, by "humpy, limpy characters". But the agreement may also point to the collaborative nature of the ensemble itself. The idea to stage Waiting for Godot, for instance (which recently added a Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh International Festival to its long list of accolades), came from its actors during DruidShakespeare. Richard III, Hynes says, is another result of an ongoing, evolving conversation.

For a theatre company considering its processes, not to mention a society asking uneasy questions about political authority, Shakespeare offers gripping accounts of the struggles of leadership. DruidShakespeare may have been an epic depiction of vexed and brutal succession, but Richard III, in person and plot, is a much nastier affair. Ambitious, dissembling and wantonly malicious, he is untouched by decorum or conscience, allied by fickle turncoat henchmen, guided by rapacious, unfillable need, and obsessed, finally, with betrayal and treason. Throw in an over-active Twitter account and he sounds like someone else I know.

“We’ve outlawed a certain five-letter word from the room,” Hynes says quickly when I mention it.

There are several good reasons for this, not least because giving Julius Caesar a rotund physique, a cumulus of blonde hair and an absurdly long red tie stripped any subtlety from New York’s Shakespeare in the Park production last year. “The parallels are now so massive,” reasons Hynes. “And I am not making references to a person who I literally, utterly despise. This is a great piece of work.We’re trying to figure out who Richard is and what he is. To make it resemble the existing political puppet show would seem to be so reductive.” Besides, she tells me later, any time you mention that five-letter word, “it tends to derail the conversation.”

Verbal wit

Perhaps one of the chief differences with Richard III, though, is that his villainy is accompanied by verbal wit, some courage, and, above all, his audience's fidgety respect. "Was ever a woman in this humour wooed?" he asks us, in one typically subversive aside, while seducing Lady Anne over the body of her slain father-in-law. This is an aggressive assault, however acquiescing its target might be, yet you're taken in by his gleeful audacity, and somehow made his confederate. Who could resist the charms of a scoundrel honest enough to admit that he hates himself, yet impressed enough by the enthusiasm of hired thugs to say, "I like you, lads"? Only Hamlet engages us more directly – and nowhere near as decisively.

If, facetiously, you could imagine that a theatre director would have some creeping regard for so shrewd and controlling a figure, it is something Hynes will entertain to a point. Easily one of the most accomplished directors the country has ever produced, she will still imagine each new project as a looming disaster.

“I often think when you start out you don’t know how things can go wrong. After 40 years of doing it, I have a great sense of the multiple, multiple ways thing can go wrong.”

She gives a grim chuckle, like someone who has sketched a minefield without triggering one. Similarly, she may joke about fantasies of absolute control – “I wish!” – when the process she describes is really one of debate, collaboration and finally release. In a way, it’s more thrilling and terrifying: the multiple, multiple things you hope to go right.

Recently Hynes has begun teaching a masterclass in directing at NUIG. I wondered if it had helped articulate her philosophy of directing. “The only way I can define it, for me, is a reverence for the text and the actor,” she says. “Simply that.”

Political relevance

Monaghan may be a kindred spirit. “Everything that we’ve ever done always comes back to the play,” he says. “The great text and the company in the room. For some reason it felt right to do this now.” Not, he adds, for any newly accrued political relevance. “I don’t need a lecture,” he says. “It’s just a cracking play.”

When rehearsals resumed, Monaghan, a mesmerising physical performer, acquired a pair of crutches, much as Anthony Sher once did. "We could spend so much time trying to avoid things," Monaghan had told me earlier; "the history of other characters I've played, the history of other Richards in performance."

Watching him perform weirdly graceful contortions, confident and slow, prowling with his arms, twisting at his hip and dragging his legs, was to understand how many unique interpretations could come from similar ideas. The production decided early that their Richard needed no prosthetics: all of Monaghan’s transformations come from within.

In the scene under examination, Richard is still a dark horse – long before he would trade his kingdom for one – and, in a playful act of cruelty, his young nephew clambers upon his back, collapsing him to the floor. Hynes and Monaghan made no apologies for Richard, aware of the difference between frisson of his actions and any gratuitousness in staging them. “I can’t be the policeman to the audience’s brains,” said Hynes. But, against their creative restlessness, Richard’s biggest flaw seemed to be his satiety: when he gets what he wants, like so many tyrants, he withers.

“It’s different every night,” Monaghan said of their performances, whether Beckett or Shakespeare. “You have to allow it to be different. As soon as we start to think we’re clever or secure, it’s just dead.”

The scene was not quite set, and Hynes winced when Zara Devlin, playing the young prince, leapt upon Monaghan's back before the actor was fully prepared. This king, the villain, needed to be protected from further crippling. "Let's try that again," she said to the room, "before someone gets killed." With this new Richard on the loose, though, that only seemed to be a matter of time.

Richard III is at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway from September 22nd – 29th and at the Abbey Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival from October 3rd – 27th