From Olivier to Andoh: not as far as you might think
“As a child, guided in my interest by my history teaching mother, I fell upon the story of Richard III and felt a kinship, through my own experience of being judged by what I looked like, rather than who I was.”
Adjoa Andoh is the most political of actors. It’s easy to pigeonhole her as an opponent of racism, but her political interests are much wider than that. In 2018 she was one of a panel who read extracts from my Clement Attlee biography at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference, to help explain what a transformative Labour government does.
Reading with her were actors Kika Markham and Richard Attlee (Clem Attlee’s grandson who plays Kenton Archer in The Archers) and journalists Paul Mason and Owen Jones. Talking to her backstage, I found her passionate and knowledgeable about politics.
About that time I saw her play a wonderful serpentine Casca in Nicholas Hytner’s gloriously political Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. Since then she has had two of Shakespeare’s great political plays at her mercy, first Richard II and now Richard III.
Her Richard III is an outsider, not because he has a crooked back, but because he’s Black. She explains in a programme note that he was a man who was valued for his military skills during the Wars of the Roses, but now, “in this weak piping time of peace”, those skills are no longer required, and he is once again judged on how he looks. There is no hiding place, as there was none for Andoh in the Cotswold village where she was brought up, the only black face for miles around.
And it’s there, in the Cotswolds, that she sets her Richard, speaking with a soft west country burr against a background of trees and open land from set designer Amelia Jane Hankin. Costume designer Maybelle Laye has clothed everyone in a simple standard white outfit, apparently from East Asia and known as a shalwar kameez, with additions to show rank or profession, including some often eccentric headgear. Wooden batons serve for swords. The English court at Westminster it isn’t.
And yet it is. The effect is to set it nowhere in particular, and let the story speak for itself, as something that could happen anywhere. And what surprises about this production is not the things that Andoh has done to Shakespeare’s work, but the things she hasn’t done.
The story is the same, and it’s told mostly in the same words. She has edited the script judiciously, but most modern directors do that: audiences these days do not have the patience to sit in the theatre as long as Shakespeare’s audiences did.
And whatever she says about turning Richard into a victim, Andoh’s Richard is as nasty a piece of work as Laurence Olivier’s in I955. The programme approvingly references the Richard III Society’s efforts to rehabilitate the monarch, but I doubt if the Richard III Society will feel this production helps advance its work.
Her Richard is as good as Olivier’s. She is a classical Shakespearean actor, with a feel for the playwright’s language. She plots and she schemes, and in the end, when she has won the crown, she starts to suspect everyone and turns on her friends. It is the story of most manipulative dictators, from Henry VIII to Hitler and Stalin. Andoh draws on her political understanding as well as her acting skills to produce a stunning traditional performance.
Though this production is about Andoh, who, as Olivier was, is the director as well as the lead actor, there is other talent on the Rose stage. Joseph Kloska plays Richard’s co-conspirator Buckingham with just the right mix of low cunning and boyish enthusiasm, so that when his friend Richard turns on him, you feel a little sadness for him. He is to Richard what Thomas Cromwell was to Henry VIII, Grigori Zinoviev to Stalin, Ernst Rohm to Hitler.
The women, who in this play are essentially the wives, mothers and sisters, are brought together in this production to provide a kind of commentary on the plot, and they are almost an ensemble company of strong performances from Liz Kettle, Caroline Parker, Rachel Sanders and Phoebe Shepherd. Henry Tudor, Duke of Richmond, the later Henry VII (Daniel Hawksford) is played here just as Shakespeare would have had him – a clean-cut square-jawed hero, riding in to rescue the nation from the dark despair of Richard’s reign.
There are some wonderful scenes, such as when the young prince (Josh Day) is surrounded by wicked, conniving old men who wish him nothing but harm; or when the wicked old men are plotting when best to crown the new young king while we already know that Richard plans to have him murdered. The best perhaps is when Buckingham is explaining to Richard how he sold to the crowd the idea of having Richard as their king – a wonderful study in manipulation, to rank with Mark Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech in Julius Caesar. These are political moments, and Andoh really understands political moments.
This Richard III is not flawless. The ghost scene was spoiled for me because Maybelle Laye has dressed the ghosts in what looked a little like clowns’ costumes. And at the end, as Richard rose from the dead and stared at the sky, there seemed to be some half-hearted effort at implying redemption.
But it is very good indeed. Andoh is magnificent, both as actor and director, and has a fine cast to support her. Sets and costumes, as they should, mostly fit in politely behind the words and the actors, without ever seeking centre stage themselves. And if it’s not as revolutionary a way of doing Shakespeare as the advance publicity led me to expect, it’s still a very fine rendering of a very great play.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Adjoa Andoh
Director: Adjoa Andoh
Set Designer: Amelia Jane Hankin
Costume Designer: Maybelle Laye
Movement: Jack Murphy
Lighting Designer: Chris Davey
Sound Designer: Benjamin Grant
Puppetry Director: Mervyn Miller
Fight Director: Nicole Alphonse
Running Time: Three hours including an interval
Booking to 13th May 2023