Richard II: William Shakespeare
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Globe Theatre, London
running time: 2hrs30mins with interval. Until 21 April.
BO: +44 (0)20 7401 9919
Review: Ken Deed, 7 March 2019
There is a remarkable point part way through the first half of Richard II, in this first all woman of colour production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse when Donna Kroll’s excellent John of Gaunt delivers the “this sceptres isle” speech. As is so often with Shakespeare, passages and, indeed, whole plays take on a renewed relevance as they butt up against contemporary realities. Here, as photos of the cast’s female ancestry which surround the playing area look down, we are very consciously invited to reconfigure who we English consider ourselves to be.
It is that consideration that lies at the heart of this production. In that very real sense it honours the playwright’s original intention throughout the whole cycle of his History plays, as he addressed the audience of his own day.
Impossible also, given the Brexit approaching month of this production, not to note the audience murmur of acknowledgement at the speech’s conclusion: “That England, that was won’t to conquer others/ Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
Although in its casting this is a radical and welcome departure, in other ways it is rather traditional. It offers no conceptual overlay and is perhaps rather better for it, allowing the language to do the work.
In this it is particularly well served by Adjoah Andoh’s barnstorming performance, as she commands the stage, chewing and spitting her words with relish. We first see Richard as, less the vacillating weakling, more the very embodiment of assertive power and there are echoes of recent African leaders in her capricious flywhisk-wielding authority. This is a performative King who really enjoys the performance. Even later in the play, as Richard’s fortunes decline, Adjoa presents us with a king who delights in being centre stage and who turns the act of submission to Bolingbroke into a theatrical tour-de-force.
There is strong support from Indra Ové as a steely Northumberland and from Leila Farzad as the Queen. The design by Rajha Shakiry and music by composer Dominique Le Gendre both cleverly reference the multi-cultural ancestry of the cast, although perhaps it is a strength of the production and a reflection of a rapidly changing theatrical convention that we quickly become absorbed in the telling of the story rather than the trappings of ethnicity and gender.