‘Richard II’ review

Theatre, Shakespeare
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
Dona Croll – John of Gaunt
© Ingrid Pollard

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A quietly brilliant take on Shakespeare’s play, performed by an all women of colour company

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?

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