This week, our writers travel back to 1398 (!) to delve into the story of Shakespeare's Richard II. The production, originally performed in 2019 and now available to watch in full online (thank you Shakespeare's Globe!), broke new ground as the first-ever Shakespeare play on a major UK stage performed by company of women of colour.
Staged as the UK prepared to leave the European Union, over 70 years since Windrush, Shakespeare's Globe describe the production as 'a post-Empire reflection on what it means to be British'. What did our writers think? Only one way to find out...
From the opening moments of Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton’s Richard II, you understand- you’re in for a revelation. Andoh is both co-director and lead, and she plays Richard as a man on fire. She imbues every line with a physical flourish - not only to serve an often distant audience, but to punctuate that Richard himself is a mess. Flighty and ungrounded, Andoh moves him easily from emotion to emotion, scene to scene. The sheer physicality is unexpected - Richard would be easy to portray as weak and waning - yet the sheer strength of her movements pull Richard towards his inevitable conclusion.
The ensemble cast has the challenging task of keeping up with the whirlwind that is Andoh’s performance; Leila Farzad, Lourdes Faberes and Shobna Gulati are all standouts, while Sarah Niles rises to the task of playing Richard’s less bombastic, more meditative foil as Henry Bolingbroke. Measured, decisive and above all else acutely aware, she brings the play to its eerie conclusion, one that notably strips Henry of his surety and leaves him yearning for absolution, in a finale that is less than optimistic about his future reign. During these final acts, we come to the play’s central question: who is fit to bear the crown’s weight?
In the play’s concluding scenes, Andoh delivers several moving and surprisingly introspective monologues. Richard laments ‘With mine own tears I wash away my balm’, and we understand that - whatever divine rights granted him the crown - all are now moot. And yet, stripped of all the paraphernalia and makeup of kingship, Richard is allowed humanity. He becomes a mere mortal, one who knows he is ridiculous and ill-suited. It is this powerful inner conclusion, portrayed with generosity by Andoh, that reaches out to the audience in the play’s most linguistically rich scenes. In contrast, Niles’ newly appointed King Henry IV is doubly burdened with the mantle of “successor”, not only as king of a hollow crown but as a dramatic inheritor to Richard’s words. Niles is careful, always teetering on the edge of uncertainty. In death Richard is free, and in holiness, King Henry is thrown onto uneven ground, for which he is notably unsuited.
This production is a landmark one, featuring a cast made up exclusively of women of colour. This diversity is also acknowledged within the fabric of production, the costumes of each character are indicative of their respective wearer’s culture, a shruti box provides musical accompaniment, and Richard wields a fly whisk as a sceptre. The importance of this casting cannot be overstated, it is resonant of one of the most important questions surrounding the bard today: how do we maintain Shakespeare’s relevance for the modern gaze? The answer, as demonstrated by this production, is shockingly simple: demonstrate that Shakespeare is for everyone. His work is universal, not merely in the common humanity he portrays through his characterisation, but in the infinite potential differing creatives find within his work. This production seizes the opportunity to ponder what it truly means to have ownership, it dwells on the notion of land, and by what right is someone entitled to govern England. This question is posed all the more poignantly when asked by those who have had their voices crushed and sidelined by the very same British colonial powers. Andoh and Lynett recognise there is still radical potential yet to be discovered in the well-worn pages of Shakespeare’s tomes.
I expected more. This had everything going for it.
An impressive yet intimate setting. A visual and sound design aesthetic steeped in subtle, clever cultural homages. A powerhouse cast consisting solely of women – specifically women of colour – performing Shakespeare on a professional stage for surprisingly the first time. Politically explosive themes that are as relevant today as when the play was written, perhaps more so. Critically lauded. This should’ve hit hard, not with a dull thud. Emphasis on dull.
Shakespeare invented being 'woke', and I think he’d have enjoyed co-directors Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh’s take on this oft performed play. It was nice to hear regional accents retained rather than replaced with “prəˈnaʊnst” English - a lovely and refreshing reminder that his work is, and always should be, for everyone.
I liked that several subplots were jettisoned for the sake of leaner storytelling (I like Shakespeare, but he can go on a bit). I liked how this adaptation made modern day parallels with the dangers of inherited and, equally, unearned power; of greed; the consequences of putting the few before the many; even nods to Brexit and Windrush.
At the risk of pedantry, I don’t think a camera can capture the electricity of seeing Shakespeare performed right in front of you. In the right hands the words dance through the air. They supercharge it. They can rattle your soul. The disconnect of the screen – and some odd camera angle decisions that I’m guessing were down to the constraints of the space – was sadly enhanced by some unbalanced performances.
It felt shouty in a lot of places, rather than projection. Some of the dialogue felt recited, rather than performed. A play like this with its charged themes needs, demands, blood, sweat, and tears.
Andoh as the titular Richard II was a disappointment. I found her strutting, schizophrenic, overly frenetic performance too showy and a little self-indulgent. At one point she practically screams a monologue into the camera. She reins in it towards the end, but by then her fate – like Richard’s – has been sealed. Sarah Niles’ performance as the main protagonist Bolingbroke was as flat as some people thought the Earth was back in the days the play was written.
The star player for me was Shobna Gulati as right northerner the Duke of York. It’s one of the play’s rare, nuanced, performances. Her delivery is spot on. You can actually see the weight of guilt she carries on her shoulders when she abandons Richard and throws her lot in with Bolingbroke in her physical performance. She’s the play’s conscience and its comic relief, pulling laughter out of the tensest scenes like a rabbit from a hat. She’s definitely the most memorable character. Ayesha Dharker's Aumerle also stuck with me. She played the role with a strong, noble, calmness. The eye of the storm devastating everything around her.
When they were on screen, I believed. I cared. The rest of the time, the dialogue rather dragged. To quote the Duchess of Gloucester, “how long a time lies in one little word!”
We are often told, most likely by our English teachers at school, that Shakespeare is timeless. At this point, it’s a cliché. But if one production proves the timelessness of Shakespeare, it’s this version of Richard II. It is a play with political turmoil at its heart, and the deposition of a leader by a demagogue in a ruthless coup is a familiar feature of today’s society.
This is the first production of a Shakespeare play with a cast entirely made up of women of colour. Shakespeare’s Globe Trust, which owns the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and the adjacent Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, take diversity seriously in all of their productions. Michelle Terry, the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, said in 2020: “Diversity is not an artistic direction, it is a moral, civil and legal one.” More than a box-ticking exercise or virtue-signalling, it’s a reinterpretation of a classic play that is both faithful to the original script and relevant to a 21st-century audience. This is nothing new: I’ve seen Richard III set during the Cold War, Much Ado About Nothing in the Mexican Revolution, and a futuristic Julius Caesar.
The production itself is spectacular. Richard II is one of only a handful of Shakespeare plays written entirely in prose and it is exquisitely performed by the talented cast. Adjoa Andoh gives a powerful, impassioned performance as King Richard. The portrayal of Richard’s tyranny is more intense and overt compared to other productions. Occasionally, I found this to be a little too intense but this may be because I’m more used to the softer, subtler presentations of Richard’s cruelty (like Ben Whishaw in the 2012 BBC adaptation). This is purely a personal preference and is my only criticism of the show. Andoh commands attention, as to be expected from any medieval king, and I could not take my eyes off her every moment she was on stage.
Bolingbroke (Sarah Niles) is the disgruntled rebel whose revenge spirals out of control and ends in tragedy. He has taken up the precarious position as king (after all, in his own play, Henry IV Part II, he remarks, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”). In the closing lines, the new king vows to “make a voyage to the Holy Land / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand,” his future on the throne uncertain.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a beautiful, intimate theatre that is the perfect setting for a play that is essentially a family drama. As Richard’s cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, closes in on his crown, it feels almost claustrophobic as we watch their war of words.
A particular highlight is the stunning costume design. Richard’s crown is reminiscent of an African headdress, a fitting nod to Andoh’s Ghanaian heritage, and the gold patterns and crystals on her clothing an embodiment of the luxury, and excess, of kingship.
Co-directors Andoh and Lynette Linton have created nothing short of a modern masterpiece of Shakespearean theatre. They have triumphantly demonstrated that Shakespeare is for everyone. In the sixteenth century, workers could buy tickets for as little as a penny so that anyone could watch plays. Today, the same should be true. It’s why honest diversity is so important. Shakespeare’s plays are poignant and entertaining, whatever your background. This production of Richard II is a shining example of the cultural and social value of theatre. “This earth of majesty” indeed.