Word of Colour

Richard II

Play: Richard II
Theatre: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Directors: Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh

Review by Joy Francis

 

History is being firmly etched into the walls of Shakespeare’s Globe with the latest incarnation of Richard II, the first of the Bard’s plays to be performed on a major stage by an all women of colour company.

Directed by the bold and prolific Lynette Linton and creative force Adjoa Andoh, anyone looking for a breathtakingly fresh, culturally relevant and politically resonant version of the Shakespeare classic will be delighted.

Following in the footsteps of other Shakespeare glass ceiling crackers, including David Oyelowo’s Henry VI for the RSC back in 2000, Linton and Andoh’s Richard II goes deeper and further. At the time, the fact that Henry VI was being magnificently played by a black actor attracted outrage and awe.

Almost 20 years later, every woman linked to this production is of colour – from the stage manager to the fight director to the candle consultant to the composer. Traditionalists, and there were two self-declared ones behind me, may struggle against being transported to an unfamiliar England. One steeped in ceremonial African chants, Indian instruments, ancestral rituals and sumptuous, colourful costumes inspired by Asia, China and Ghana.

Andoh, on double duty as the eponymous Richard, is mesmerising as the fiery, fickle, vain and scheming king. But she doesn’t rely on what is familiar. Instead, she takes Richard beyond his famed shallow tyranny to draw out a more complex character and emotional backstory.

Despite banishing his cousin, the populist Bolingbroke (a deliciously swaggering Sarah Niles) to six years in exile, only to extort his riches for civil wars, Richard’s pain is never far away from the surface. Desperate to be loved, this fatherless king is directionless. His over expressiveness and unpredictability masks a lingering grief and fear of losing his status and power.

Richard’s uncle Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster (a superb Dona Croll), is grieving for his exiled son Bolingbroke. Near death, he gives a coruscating assessment of Richard’s downgraded England. Gaunt’s conclusion that after years of conquering others, England ‘hath made a shameful conquest of itself’ sparks unexpected cheers of approval from the audience, mindful of the looming Brexit deadline.

With the theatre basked in candlelight, the mood is rich, atmospheric and intimate. Shakespeare’s text soars with clarity and modernity. The ensemble’s passion, irrepressible energy and solidity enliven the 422 year old play. Captivating and urgent, there is a unifying energy about this production, which is what the country needs right now.

Everyone is welcome under this new world order of Shakespeare. It is owned by the cast under the watchful eyes of their real life female relatives – aunts, mothers and grandmothers – each captured in sepia photographs, all from the former British Empire.

Adjoa Andoh’s award-worthy Richard is a sight to behold. Cocky, weak, impetuous, imperious, playful, unsure, raging and crestfallen, Andoh always brings him back from the brink: “With mine own tears I wash away my balm, With mine own hands I give away my crown.” As for Sarah Niles’ commanding Bolingbroke, resplendent in a dashiki, DMs and afro-punk hair, she is pure black girl magic.

Indra Ové’s Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, is all attitude and arm tattoos while Leila Farzad’s Queen is feisty and modern. The biggest relevation is Shobna Gulati’s beautifully pitched Duke of York. Torn between his loyalty to Richard and sympathy for Bolingbroke’s plight, Gulati’s Duke is like a world weary grandparent, with a philosophical bent and a timely sense of humour, delivered in a characterful Northern accent.

Most of the impressive cast play multiple roles and carry an undercurrent of both joy and responsibility. Inspiring a standing ovation and three encores, Andoh’s leap of delight is totally deserved as yet another barrier is felled by a powerful, emotionally intelligent and entertaining production that deserves to be on every award shortlist this season

Picture credit: Adjoa Andoh as Richard by Ingrid Pollard

Richard II is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, until 21 April 2019

Book your tickets here.