Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Adjoa Andoh, Lynette Linton
Cast: Adjoa Andoh, Nicholle Cherrie, Dona Croll, Ayesha Dharker, Lourdes Faberes, Leila Farzad, Shobna Gulati, Hazel Holder, Sarah Lam, Sarah Niles, Indra Ové
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London
3 March 2019
It’s not difficult to find contemporary relevance in Shakespeare’s history plays, even at The Globe where it’s more common to see them in a more traditional period setting. The text rings true not because of historical authenticity, but because the plays exhibit the same kind of human issues and behaviours we see in the world today. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to find the ruler of a nation “that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself” in the current running of Brexit and in the scandal of the Windrush generation.
That certainly becomes even more apparent when Richard II is performed entirely by an all-female cast, none of whom are white. If that kind of casting is about as far away as it’s possible from how it was originally intended and how it has been traditionally played, it emphasises the differences of where we are today, but at the same time it highlights the commonalities when we consider – as Richard II very much does – what it means to be English.
Such a politicised statement could have been heavy-handed then, but director Adjoa Andoh doesn’t take any liberties with the text or even seek to manipulate the context. Aside from some ceremonial chants and music that is more African in origin than the usual English regal fanfares, the production (Andoh playing the lead role of Richard as well as co-directing) lets the work speak largely for itself, albeit with the women of colour context placing a very different complexion on what we consider to be British values and weaknesses.
So when Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and Thomas Mowbray fall out of favour with the king and are sent into exile and separated from their families, it’s not hard to consider this in terms of their citizenship being revoked. The impact that this has on the unjustly treated men/women, separated from their families and deported to a foreign land “My native English, now I must forgo“, feels truly painful on a human level and the line “Though banish’d, yet a trueborn English man” becomes more than just an expression of old-fashioned patriotic sentiments. It’s also much easier to understand why a ruler who would push such a policy could incur the resentment of many and bring shame upon a once proud nation.
Essentially then Andoh’s production reminds you constantly that these women of black origin are all British citizens, and mistreatment of any section of its citizens is likely to result in division, and a divided nation cannot live up to its full potential. Critically though, and in stark contrast to how Richard is often portrayed by a male lead actor as weak, effeminate and ineffectual, Adjoa Andoh – rather like Marlowe’s study of a weak king Edward II running alongside this at the Globe – plays against type and instead presents Richard as arrogant and authoritarian, making rash and damaging decisions. That’s something we can also identify strongly with in the current Prime Minister and UK government ministries.
There are limitations to what you can do within the Jacobean design of the Sam Wanamaker playhouse with only candlelight to illuminate the performance, but there are no limitations on creativity. Rajha Shakiry’s set designs are minimally dressed, just enough to cover the elaborately panelled doors, replacing them with wooden pole ramparts. The balcony also bears photographs of relatives of relatives of each of the cast, attesting to their origins and history, their Britishness. It’s a simple statement and unobtrusive but it makes an important and relevant point and reminds you that there is nothing academic about Shakespeare’s text; it relates to the lived experience of those on the stage and undoubtedly many in the audience too.
There’s a sense that this was very much an ensemble piece then with no particular star performances looking for the limelight, but rather working towards a common aim. It’s hard not to be impressed however by Adjoa Andoh’s interpretation of Richard, strutting and barking commands in a god-given manner, far from the weak and indecisive Richard that you often see. Even her hesitation about handing over of the crown to Bolingbroke seems to come from a deeper internal conflict, a resistance to change maybe. The real success however is not just that this is an all-woman of colour cast, but that it makes no difference. It’s enough that they can carry everything that is in Richard II and exist entirely as these characters without you having to give it a second thought.
Comic review: Omni-Visibilis by Trondheim and Bonhomme
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