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Theatre review: Richard II

Lighting the way:
Ayesha Dharker on
stage at the Globe


Richard II

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London ★★★✩✩

IT’S a great move to stage Shakespeare’s play about power and legitimacy with an all-women of colour cast, the first such Shakespeare production on a major stage. Richard II, in which a weak monarch is deposed after exiling his enemy, Bolingbroke, who returns with an army to lay rightful claim to his land, is steeped in ideas of denied inheritance and bungled government.

Here, those ideas are specifically contextualised within the recent Windrush debacle: the portraits of the female ancestors of this multi-ethnic cast are strung around the balcony, a powerful reminder they too are custodians of this sceptred isle, and have a stake in it.

Oh, and the self-inflicted wounds of Richard’s identity crisis find a neat parallel with Brexit — when Doña Croll’s soulful John of Gaunt talks about England making ‘a shameful conquest of itself’, a cheer erupted from the audience.

Adjoa Andoh, who also co-directs with Lynette Linton, is a persistent, riveting delight as Richard, not the preening, lily-livered narcissist he is usually portrayed as but a manipulative, sardonic, opportunist bully whose sense of entitlement is exposed the more his actual power diminishes. Among a fine cast there is particularly terrific comic input from Shobna Gulati as the Duke of York.

Andoh and Linton reject pomp and circumstance for a more fluid interpretation of the rituals of power — the palatial setting is bamboo; the live musical percussion shifts from Africa to Asia to the Far East.

I missed the play’s deep vein of poetic melancholy and several scenes, particularly in the slow first half, could do with a tad more definition. But the vibe is earthy and Andoh makes grippingly clear the existential dangers that can arise from believing too much in the innate right to sovereignty.