This production of Shakespeare’s history play is entirely produced, directed and performed by non-white women — a first for a production on a major British stage. The costumes, set and music are non-specific, sometimes African, Arabic or Indian. Around the theatre are banners made from photos of the cast’s ancestors from across the world.
The play concerns the emerging national identity and it is fascinating how different the many references to gender and race come across with this cast, raising a new commentary about their original meaning.
One early speaker shows how serious his argument is by stating, “’Tis not the trial of a woman’s war/The bitter clamour of two eager tongues”.
Another complains of weakness that the king has brought to the country, “England that was wont to conquer others hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
In the shadow of the Windrush scandal the idea of exile is loaded. One exiled character complains, “The language I have learn’d these forty years,/My native English, now I must forego.”
The play is the origin of the phrase “this sceptred isle”. It contains other passages much loved by English nationalists and lovers of the British Empire, such as, “This fortress built by Nature for herself /Against infection and the hand of war, /This happy breed of men, this little world, /This precious stone set in the silver sea.”
This production contains constant reminders that any modern performance exists in the shadow of the British Empire.
Shakespeare himself took into account the history that was to follow the events he depicts — the coming War of the Roses that led to the political environment in which he wrote. Co-director and star Adjoa Andoh said, “I wanted it to be the people at the bottom of the empire telling the story.”
The play opens with a formal court scene, with Richard as an apparently noble figure, but he soon comes across as capricious and cruel. (Andoh has said she had Theresa May on her mind when developing the role.)
He is surrounded by flatterers and fighting abroad in wars in Ireland and Calais, funded by taxing the poor. His nobles come to think of replacing him.
The characters are swept along in the justifications for “regime change”. When Richard is deposed he laments, “I have no name, no title.” The scene where Richard is deposed was considered so incendiary during Elizabeth I’s lifetime that it was left out of printed versions of the play.
Richard is not a character who engages much sympathy. He ridicules his opponent, Bolingbroke, for showing respect to common people: “What reverence he did throw away on slaves”.
At the age of 14 the real Richard defeated the Peasants’ Revolt and had its leader, Wat Tyler, murdered. Shakespeare’s version constantly carps on about the divine right of kings to have their orders obeyed without question.
The old fashioned language and a period of history that they know little about can put people off. It is undoubtedly confusing that one of the leads is variously referred to as Henry, Harry, Hereford, Gaunt, Lancaster and Bolingbroke.
But it is not hard to follow the core story here, and the themes clearly resonate with current debates about Brexit, identity and statehood. The language and production are worth engaging with, bringing a freshness to Shakespeare’s words.
It was a pity I could only see about 20 non-white people on the night I went. This production in particular deserves a wide and diverse audience.