Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton’s Richard II is a landmark production. In the most obvious sense, that’s because it’s the first major UK Shakespeare production staged by a cast entirely of women of colour. And from this extraordinary cast comes forth a production of Richard II that is all about land, earth, and what – and who – makes up a nation.
The setting is England, and the set is a place covered in bamboo, peopled by individuals wearing contemporary clothing from the cast members’ respective cultures – Southeast Asian, East Asian, African. Notably, the actors wear dresses and trousers; this is not a gender-crossed interpretation of characters, but a staging of the play with women actors. Stylised black-and-white sketches and photographs of their ancestors (another landmark, honouring women of colour who represent the lives and cultures of the past) hang from the galleries like a memorial. There’s a tension in representing England by the cultures and peoples the English colonized throughout history, a tension that sits quietly in the background of a play which is all about a nation being divvied up and fought over, both figuratively and literally.
Richard II, like most of the history plays, is dense and complex. The play follows Richard’s fall, from his initial faulty decision to banish his cousin Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray to his foolish decision to go to war on Ireland, to his ultimate demise by the hands of the very men he banished. Richard is always on the move, and drama and treason is always happening elsewhere, which makes its plot often difficult to track. Yet this production is able to make these events feel coherent and streamlined, marked by one of Richard’s peers telling him more grave news of others who have turned against him. Truly, it’s Adjoa Andoh’s fiery and nuanced performance as Richard that gives all of these rapid twists and turns a sense of clarity. Andoh, dressed in royal white and adorned with a gold headdress, struts about the stage carrying a white fly-whisk. She plays Richard with arrogance and impulsivity, and manic, overwhelming insecurity and fear. She twists the rhythm of the language to reveal all of Richard’s insecurities about himself and his power.
And it always seems to come back to land. Richard’s subjects follow the customs of court seen in India, China, and England – kneeling to touch the foot of the person they are meeting, throwing oneself prostrate on the ground at the king’s feet. Richard himself bows to the land by pressing himself to the ground and kissing it when he returns from Ireland. Power comes from the literal ownership of soil, the physical presence on an island that has been declared as a nation. Andoh passionately speaks of England, emphasizing the second syllable with sharpness. Dona Croll as a riveting John of Gaunt speaks prophetically and hauntingly of ‘scepter’d isle’ that has made a conquest of itself. Her John is tired, resigned, sat in a wheelchair and draped in a grand-matronly floral blanket, but underneath is a clear passion for the notion of the country and a fear for its literal destruction. ‘Landlord of England art thou now’ is the best insult he hurls at Richard.
Northumberland is played proudly by Indra OvÃ© as a man determined to regain his honour through reclaiming England (and his right to be on English soil). Sarah Niles’ Bolingbroke plays as a sophisticated, proud if slightly more even-tempered foil. Shobna Gulati’s Duke of York is a world-weary northerner who speaks as if he’s seen the cycles of kingship one too many times, and switches sides unwillingly. Gulati’s delivery is particularly witty, and her coattails over her dress, her wide spectacles and headscarf give her the appearance of the out-of-date grandparent. (Someone more qualified than me, with the knowledge of and vocabulary for costume, could probably write an entire paper about the characterization through costume in this production.)
Altogether, the production is an elegant composition that allows these themes of land and nationhood to emerge in the performances without any heavy nudges to the audience. The exception, perhaps, is the closing landmark, a haunting stake in the ground: as the new court of England covers their faces in mourning white, the red cross of the English flag is unveiled behind them with a thud. It’s a daunting final provocation: what kind of nation have we created?
Richard II runs till 21st April at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Globe Theatre. More details here.