FringeReview UK 2019
Costume designer Rianna Azoro has worked closely as has the designers Rajha Shakiry and Ella Callow with co-directors Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh. Composer Dominique le Gendre with Lois Au’s direction ad Hazel Holder’s voice strike a balance between ritual African and far eastern soundworlds, which includes a shruti box. Fight direction by Yarit Dor.
In a time of volatility, Richard II – with its ominous twinge of end-of-Elizabethan era – seems a lightning rod. Barely has Simon Russell Beale’s Richard finished at the Almeida, than a different radical take comes to the Wanamaker.
An all-women of colour cast sweeps us into a freshly-ritualised world, set and costumes African, where elements of the far east and India are highlighted. Rianna Azoro has worked closely as have designers Rajha Shakiry and Ella Callow with the co-directors. We’re immersed in a bamboo-fronted stage with gorgeous coloured robes not too far from Richard’s own lazuli-saturated Wilton Diptych, with fly-whisks. Composer Dominique le Gendre with Lois Au’s direction ad Hazel Holder’s voice strike a balance between ritual African and far eastern soundworlds, which includes a shruti box. Richard was an acutely ritualistic monarch as Shakespeare underscores; this Richard II refracts that world.
It’s thrillingly different too, with a fuller text and exploration of themes than in many productions of Richard II and one seriously puzzling cut. The farcical bit which gives the lie to the co-directors claim that there’s no humour in this play.
Vacillation and weak assertiveness hardly need underlying for ruinous topicality. Co-directors Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh who takes the title part, emphasize a dissolution of empire ‘from the bottom up’ and the cast reflects back at one level the ruinous effects of colonialism. But it’s too strong even for this premise. What we’re treated to is the absorbing dissection of a king entrapped in the web of inherited majesty, its unholiness washing the oil from an anointed king. Entitlement drips its unaccountability, its heedless cost in lives and the country’s fabric.
From the start Andoh allows a range not so often seen in the austere soaring perorations. There’s flinty fury, outrage and disbelief, but also a caprice that highlights some of the most arbitrary decisions. We’re familiar with the quicksilver way in Richard havers over that duel between Bolingbroke (here a commanding Sarah Niles) and Mowbray (Indira Ové returns as Northumberland). Then shifts to banishment then flips to reduce its terms in Bolingbroke.
But Andoh sets up Richard’s spoilt, abrupt dealings then visited when commandeering John of Gaunt’s goods. What this production emphasizes is the arbitrariness of Richard’s whims, the cold avarice over Gaunt’s property to fund the Ireland expedition. It marks a fall more clearly than in any production I’ve seen. Andoh sets the arrogance as well as charm before a fall with an exquisite sense of Richard’s obliviousness.
D|ona Croli’s Gaunt too is singularly etched, giving one of the finest performances vocally, as does Sarah Lam in her first role of Duchess of Gloucester (we still never discover who murdered Gloucester, Richard’s other uncle) before being ill-fated Bushy and ill-prophesying truculent Gardener. Again Andoh’s indifference to elder counsel is brought out with a kind of callousness and dispatch for Gaunt’s goods that ensure it’s when not if Richard falls.
Andoh’s other great opportunity for slippery alienation is naturally the deposition scene, where the very language of abdication is being forged and broken by the ay the crown’s hesitated, toyed with, surrendered and snatched. Andoh’s switchbacks and quicksilver sense of the verse compels us to this version of Richard, a bizarre mix of rigidity and indecisiveness.
When Andoh’s Richard now counts a king among flatterers, it’s as if in a sense you feel a courtier’s role might have proved more fortunate. Niles naturally has to reflect back something other: an initially reluctant, then resolute bruiser, who sees the limits of niceties.
Elsewhere the text’s given far more fully when Leila Farzad’s Queen is given more agency than in any other production. Farzad already possesses striking clarity of diction and rationale, and does vehemence well too, bringing fierce loyalty if not intimacy to a nameless, thankless cipher role.
Ové’s Northumberland is a skirling joy as she slices through the pretensions surrounding Richard’s claims. Shobna Gulati as a bespectacled York though adds a fantastic hesitation, agonizing her face as she finally accedes to the inevitable and switches loyalty to Bolingbroke.
What’s reft from her though is the black comedy of her son’s defection and wife’s taking the son’s side, as York proceeds to denounce an only son as traitor to the new king. How they all fetch up at court is one of the richest black farces in Shakespeare. It’s a great pity this was cut – there’s enough slack in the multi-roling to have allowed it.
Ayesha Dharker’s Aumerle is given those reflective parts hedging about monarchs so we’re treated to a fine register of reflection. Lourdes Farberes as Bagot, Ross, Exton and Gardener’s Help enjoys flurry of different voicings as does Nicholle Cherrie who apart from that ominous Groom takes young Percy (a role sometimes cut) luckless Green and Queen’s attendant. Yarit Dor’s fight scenes are never so potent as at the very end, with more than one body lying strewn (as far as we know, Richard slew one of his assailants).
The nearest classical production is Yellow Earth’s six-strong women (mainly of colour) ensemble in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine at the Arcola in March 2017. This new production, with its ten cast, and less filleted text, makes an even bolder, more complex impression. It’s certainly a brilliant display of how the bottom of the empire strikes back, as the directors hope. More potently it’s a searingly precise essay on the corruption of entitlement, refracted through a blaze of cultures.