Review: Richard II (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh co-direct a remarkable retelling of Shakespeare’s play

Ayesha Dharker as Aumerle in Richard II
Ayesha Dharker as Aumerle in Richard II
© Ingrid Pollard

Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh, who co-direct this Richard II, have produced the first Shakespeare play featuring a company of women of colour on a professional stage. The result is a refreshing take on the oft-performed history play.

For those unfamiliar, the play follows King Richard II's downfall following his self-absorption, starting civil wars, and his main opposition from Bolingbroke – later Henry IV. The show has been squeezed into just over two hours, which although discards subplots relating to Bolingbroke, allows for a smooth sand focused storytelling.

Though simply staged the play's themes are emphasised and twisted in a new light purely through the choice of cast. Gaunt's speech about Britain – "this scepter'd isle" – performed beautifully by Dona Croll, draws out feelings towards the current Brexit situation, and elicits a cheer and knowing laughs from the audience. When Mowbray (Indra Ové) mentions they must forgo their native English, it is an immediate reminder of the Windrush generation. The theme of generation is not only key in the play, but is also apparent in designer Rajha Shakiry's set, which sees pictures of the cast's female ancestors printed onto cloth and hung around the balcony.

As well as directing, Andoh also stars as Richard and her performance is impassioned and full of forceful energy, as she spits out words and struts across the stage. She is evenly matched by Sarah Niles' Bolingbroke who is still and calculating and Shobna Gulati's memorable turn as the Duke of York, which brings laughter into the often tense scenes. Ayesha Dharker's performance as Aumerle is also notable, with her voice bringing a calming quality to the stage.

The costumes are splendidly colourful, and look gorgeous when bathed in the signature Wannamaker candlelight. The clothing draws upon the cast's backgrounds to create designs inspired by Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, the Far East, and the West Indies.

This production of Richard II is not only stylish and fiercely performed, but it is a necessary staging; a masterclass in how to reclaim the often-feared Shakespeare.