Shakespeare’s history plays are heavy things. They’re the Irish stews of theatre, filled with chunks of banishments, lumps of plotting, blobs of battles, knobs of horse-related humour and… you get the idea. Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton’s co-production of Richard II, however, is the opposite.
The directorial duo take the story of a feeble king overseeing a divided England and comb through it, making the parts that matter to them shine out, and the rest gently fade away. At the same time, they add a layer of significance by having it performed by a company of women of colour – making this the first time a major UK theatre has ever (EVER) staged a Shakespeare play where this has been the case.
Andoh does double duty by also performing the title role. This is not an ego-driven decision: Andoh was basically born to play Richard. And it’s pretty apparent she’s massively enjoying doing so. As the capricious monarch, she segues from being ‘that guy’ (the man-spreading, laughing at his own jokes, copping-a-cheeky-feel guy) into a man-child incapable of trusting his own mind.
There are several other top-notch performances. Doña Croll does full justice to John of Gaunt’s famous ‘this scepter’d isle’ speech, making it a sad reflection and an even worse premonition. Sarah Niles is also brilliant as Bolingbroke, so confident in his chances of succeeding Richard he’s barely breaking sweat. But if there’s a standout, it’s Shobna Gulati as the Duke of York. She sweeps through proceedings like a scholarly grandmother who’s seen it all before and is disappointed (but not angry) at the ineptitude of everyone else.
Andoh and Linton’s ‘Richard II’ is, on the whole, a quiet version – sometimes a little too quiet – but that’s because it doesn’t need to shout; its ideas emerge elegantly by themselves. Performed beneath photographs of the cast’s relatives – women from countries throughout what was the British Empire – Shakespeare’s kings and dukes, with their obsessing over words like ‘England’ and ‘commonwealth’, look increasingly pathetic. This belief in our right to rule and conquer: where has it led us? Or, while we’re at it: where is it leading us?