Sam Wanamaker Theatre, Shakespeare's Globe
This is a production that is making a very strong and very positive statement. It is the first Shakespeare play presented by a major theatre to have a cast that is both all female and all women of colour. It isn’t gender and colour blind: it demands that you notice as it casts these actresses in roles that have usually been played by white men.
That point being made, you can get on with the play which co-directors Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton and designer Rajha Shakiry have given an exotic setting, hiding the Wanamaker’s 17th century screen behind bamboo poles and dressing its actors in African- and Indian-influenced clothes to recount English history. Trousers worn with skirts worn over them make female dress seem more neutral and, in a play in which almost every character is male, these are actors playing characters, not gender, Shakespeare’s words usually identifying whom they are.
Costumes glow with gold and rich colour and there is an element of ritual with an African flavour. Chanting, dancing and small puppet figures enact ceremonial, the royal dukes carry gold staffs topped with animal emblems, subjects prostrate themselves before the King who flicks a fly whisk like an African ruler and cries “Hey” to trigger obeisance while drums take the place of European trumpets. But, however exotic these people appear, they are English, attached to the land—and wanting more of it, for this is a picture of a society that speaks of honour but is interested in ownership. This production makes it clear that dynastic politics are about status and what comes with it: they want territory, money and power. And that goes for the King too.
This is a King Richard unlike any I’ve seen before. There is nothing effete about Adjoa Andoh’s Richard, the “caterpillar” favourites, the rebellious faction accuse of malign influence, are detested because of the perks they get. This Richard may be extravagant but he’s no poetical pushover. He’s fast-talking, fast thinking, almost manic. You remember he inherited the crown as a boy, controlled by his elders. Adult he’s proud, likes having his own way and expects it, but his superficial confidence in his divine right could easily crumble.
Sarah Niles’s Henry Bolingbroke is heavier, more rooted and slower in delivery in contrast to the mercurial king. Exchanging accusations of treason at the start of the play with Henry, Indra Ové’s Mowbray seems flippant and devious.
When they insist on pursuing their mutual challenges, they don’t go to joust but begin a fight with sticks, which Richard halts and sends them to exile. The plea of Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, gets his banishment shortened but that doesn’t stop Richard from seizing his lands and possessions when Gaunt dies, which leads to Bolingbroke returning to England to claim them and then challenge him for the crown.
Dona Croll is a venerable Gaunt, handling the familiar eulogy in praise of England like a man looking back on his own life and making its bitter ending seem particularly topical.
Shobna Fulati, bespectacled as his brother York, shows a man caught between duty and circumstance, perhaps the only one in the family who doesn’t act from self-interest in this dynastic drama.
Like those mentioned, this female cast doesn’t act masculinity, they play people, though characterisations are helped by strong voices—no girlish fluting. The verse is handled with intelligence and clarity, though in one case taken far too slowly. There are cuts which help move the story quickly (and will only be noticeable to those who know the play very well) and make the action even more clear.
Apart from the casting decision and the way that influences the staging, this is a production that imposes no directorial concept but delivers a remarkable clarity which is helped by the Wanamaker Playhouse’s intimacy, though I could wish that they could have used candle holders as employed in some other productions rather than the lanterns used in some scenes. While audiences can adjust to the low light levels of candles, it is better for actor and audience when you can see faces clearly.