Ingrid Pollard

Richard II

Reviewer's Rating

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe is well-known for its single most defining feature: the cozy wooden theater, built in the style of Jacobean theaters, is lit entirely by candlelight. Even on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the chandeliers which hang over the small wooden stage provide the only light – making for a dramatic setting.

And Richard II is nothing if not dramatic. The Globe Theatre’s Richard II begins with a breathtaking spectacle of ceremony. Evoking an African or Caribbean feel, the actors stream onto the intimate stage, chanting in unison and bearing lit candlesticks. They are richly dressed in bright colors and robes of different cultural origins. Above them, the source of their adulation, is the awe-inspiring, fierce-looking Richard himself. Or herself, I should say. For what sets this production of Richard II apart is its cast, entirely comprised of women of color.

Co-director and star of the show Adjoa Andoh said in an interview: “Richard II is the great play about England, and I wanted it to be the people at the bottom of the empire telling the story…women of colour get to tell that story.” And indeed, the cast as a whole has its own story to tell from the pages of the oft-read text. The spectacle which opens the production soon gives way to the immortal prose and poetry of the play, and immediately you realize that Richard II will not only be visually striking. Each actor imbues her role with resounding gravitas, but also a unique sensitivity. In a story which is more about humans and human relationships than it is about politics, the cast digs into the emotional nuance of their characters and present rich – and ultimately sympathetic – personalities.

Sarah Niles as Henry Bolingbroke (the future King Henry IV) brings a comforting steadiness and nobility to the role. She is the type of leader that one would follow to the ends of the Earth. Richard’s Queen, portrayed by Leila Farzad, appears at first to be a humble, supportive figure in Richard’s presence – but when she must fight for her crown and her king, she proves herself to be as stubborn and self-righteous, and yet pitiable, as her husband.

Andoh plays King Richard as an incredibly compelling, magnetic – if not capricious – ruler. Richard II was crowned king at the tender age of ten, and Shakespeare’s characterization of the man – just thirty-three years old when he died – is a complex personality. He has both been forced to grow up too soon, bearing the weight of wars and revolts on his shoulders since youth, and been preserved in perpetual childhood by all the luxuries and power of absolute monarchy. And Andoh delves into all the nuance of this character with a natural grace and skill. Her Richard is a striking figure: regal, authoritative, with the composure of someone who is to be feared and worshipped. Yet Richard’s weakness is revealed all too easily. Andoh masters this mercurial temperament, playing Richard’s hesitation as childlike uncertainty, and his mood swings as temper tantrums. Richard is quick and capable; yet he is easily upset. He is fiercely intelligent, and yet fails to see so much that will bring about his eventual demise. But even as you watch him make blunder after preventable blunder, you pity him until the last moment of his life.

Representation matters, and the power and talent of this production at the Globe is compounded by the message it packs in each utterance of the lines. Shakespeare – and theater – should be a space for everyone, and in Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh’s history-making production, it can be.