Richard II at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The beauty of Shakespeare’s plays is that they lend themselves to an infinity of interpretations, and part of the excitement when going to see his works is to re-discover the familiar plots through a new lens. The Globe’s latest production of Richard II is like no other, as it is interpreted exclusively by women, all from different ethnic backgrounds. The casting itself is a loud statement, giving food for thought even before the play begins. Inevitably, it introduces a new dimension, but as the plot is unchanged (aside from the removal of some subplots) the women’s cultural backgrounds and their gender are facts that remain separate from the king’s tale and are not integrated in the story.
The play follows the psychological journey of frivolous monarch Richard II (Adjoa Andoh) as he gradually loses his authority and power amidst civil wars and the growing concern of those around him. Andoh gives the character depth and the required complexity that sees vanity, superficiality, confusion and fear alternate and torment the king. The rest of the cast form a solid frame for the protagonist to shine through, but no other character comes alive with quite the same force as Richard II. Shobna Gulati brings a streak of humour as the Duke of York and Leila Farzad gives the usually overlooked queen more presence. Overall, however, the secondary characters seem to hold back, even in their movements, with embraces, fights and most physical contact looking too much like rehearsed poses.
The mould-breaking casting choices make this production the first of its kind, and it is always exciting to see Shakespeare meet the modern world. Edited in a way that makes the pertinent theme of Britain’s uncertain future stand out, at times Shakespeare’s words seem to apply to present day socio-political affairs with great accuracy. The atmospheric set, consisting of a background of bamboo sticks and the playhouse’s warm candlelight, works very well with the melange of traditional costumes. The merging of cultures, however, comes with a vagueness regarding the place where the story is set, which is never specified and creates a split from the context described in the spoken narrative.
A bold production made stronger by Andoh’s intense energy, this Richard II has its limitations, but is a great reminder of the innovative ways that a classic play can be brought closer to a modern audience.
Photo: Ingrid Pollard
Richard II is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 22nd February until 21st April 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.