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ONLINE THEATRE Casting a contemporary eye on Shakespeare

MARY CONWAY recommends a production of Richard II that makes a striking break with tradition

Richard II
Globe Theatre online

IN THIS production of Shakespeare’s Richard II, all the roles are played by women of colour and the result is that stereotypes are blown to pieces and the play’s universality and contemporary significance amplified.

In place of the rather constrained view of a single-nation Plantagenet Britain straight from the history books, co-directors Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh capture the melange that is the England we know today with its complex ethnic range and cultural heritage.  

Designer Rajha Shakiry’s costumes flaunt the purples and magentas, the greens and golds of Africa and Asia and all the characters wear combinations of dresses and trousers that evoke Moroccan bazaars and the exotic East.

The trademark natural candlelight of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse softens the contemporary  atmosphere and brings the medieval to mind, while the insistent drums of world music harness the present and drive the pace.

Against this background of colour and vigour, the actors deliver the magnificent text in almost classical style, while the tale of conflict and brutality in those far-off Wars of the Roses plays out with a truth and honesty that grounds it in the here and now.

One startling indication of the play’s modern relevance occurs when Dona Croll delivers the famous John of Gaunt speech and the line: “That England, that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself.” It unexpectedly provokes the audience to spontaneous laughter, fuelled by bitter recognition of our country’s current state.

Director Andoh herself plays the swaggering, irascible Richard, eyes wide with panic and given to excessive rages. Her command of the stage is effortless and her verse speaking exemplary, if giving little space to the character’s simple, childish vulnerability and tragic destiny.

At times the actors adopt a uniformly declamatory tone in their focus on urgent masculinity but there is variety, particularly from Shobna Gulati who embodies the weary cynicism of a Duke of York who has seen it all and can switch allegiance as required.

Her flat northern vowels and conscious wit cut across the sweeping speeches, as if York sits outside the action and plays to a knowing audience imbued with an equal pessimism.

A landmark show for the casting alone, this skilful production reimagines the play, highlighting its infinite variety.

And in revealing a country divided against itself and lost in turmoil, it is a timely offering.

Free to watch on YouTube, youtube.com/watch?v=BHrXAJ93hRU

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