The African Company Presents Richard III

Carlyle Brown
Red Bull Theater

The African Company Presents Richard III Credit: Red Bull Theatre

An anniversary is always a good excuse for staging or reviving a play. In this case, the events depicted took place in New York City exactly 200 years ago.

Using what is fast becoming a tried and trusted formula, director Carl Cofield works with a company of actors widely spread across North America streamed live from their homes to present a new production of this play, which first saw the light of day in St Paul, Minnesota during 1987.

Before the curtain has even risen on the 2,300 seat Park Theater’s version of Richard III starring the famous English import Junius Brutus Booth, Edward Gero, portraying the venue’s scheming and patronising manager Stephen Price, is obliged to apologise for a delay due to a riot. Unlikely as it may seem, the cause of the dissension was a production of the same play by a far less distinguished but nevertheless popular rival company in a hotel literally next door to the theatre.

Despite the fact that slavery was still a fact of life not too much further south, this was presented by The African Company, blazing a racially equal theatrical trail that has still not fully realised its goal two centuries later. The African Company contained a rich assortment of characters to suit every taste. It was run by Clifton Duncan as Billy Brown, a Shakespeare-loving impresario who let nothing get in the way of his passion. He shared this with Craig Wallace’s Papa Shakespeare, uneducated but endearingly enthusiastic.

In the title role, Dion Johnstone is James Hewlett, dignified and talented, inspiring his audience but also Ann Johnson, played by Antoinette Robinson, who like Lady Anne whom she portrays is obviously sweet on the actor-king as she informs her wise friend Sarah the Queen / wardrobe mistress portrayed by Jessika D Williams. The double Ann(e) also injects a feminist slant into proceedings.

The conflict that develops between the two companies is very deliberately designed to mirror that between factions in Shakespeare’s (and history’s) Wars of the Roses, long ago and far away. Playwright Carlyle Brown not only elucidates on the history in the context of Shakespearean performance but also uses the opportunity to make some trenchant points about race relations in the 19th century and, by extension, in today’s considerably more enlightened times when thankfully no critic would dare to refer to an esteemed actor playing the part of Richard III as “a woolly-headed waiter”.

A strong cast does the subject matter proud, Dion Johnstone making the most of his opportunity to play the King to the point where viewers will wish that one day they might see him doing so in the real thing.

The African Company Presents Richard III is a rousing and spirited play that carries a strong message and does so with considerable humour. It is yet another success for the ever-reliable Red Bull Theater.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher