8/7/2020 RICHARD II Sam Wanamaker Playhouse / YouTube
THE DEATH OF KINGS
Just how universal are Shakespeare’s densely plotted and character-crowded History plays? Judging by the video of a remarkable 2019 production of Richard II in London’s Globe Theater (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse), more universal than we have come to believe.
To start with the most obvious concept informing this production, it is cast in its entirety with BIPOC women. Yes, this quintessentially male British play, arguably all about “toxic masculinity” and its effect on history and royal succession, is being performed by women whose ethnicity is part of many countries that, at one time or another, were under Britain’s Colonial thumb. The costumes are a tapestry of native styles, all reflecting each actress’ particular heritage. And to drive home the themes of succession and family, the galleries around the small bamboo-centric thrust stage are “dressed” with black-and-white stylistic depictions (*) of the actor’s female forebears, paying due homage to the women, to the families that gave them life and purpose. In addition, music and rhythms and rituals all pay homage to African, Indian, and Far Eastern motifs and traditions.
You would think there is not a single ounce of British culture remaining!
Then they speak, and Shakespeare’s glorious language and characters inhabit this cast as easily and comfortably as a kimono or a djellaba.
The plot follows Shakespeare’s version of the end of Richard’s reign, the series of bad decisions and “tone-deaf” pronouncements that led to the rise in popularity of Henry Bolingbroke and the eventual coup that led to the crowning of Bolingbroke. Nobles switch loyalties with ease, friends find themselves on the wrong end of the executioner’s axe, and circumstance leads to the ultimate isolation (and murder) of the (ex) king.
But this is a Richard very unlike any we have seen before. Adjoah Andoh (who also directed) is arrogantly regal, dressed in the royal white of a tribal warrior, carrying a fly-whisk as if it were a scepter, wielding it like a weapon. Her high crown is gold and her high pride is implacable. She hisses and struts and bellows and is every inch the king. Other cast members that go in unexpected directions are Sarah Niles as Bolingbroke, more even-tempered than Richard, even regretful about her “fall” into the kingship. Shobna Gukati’s Duke of York, bespectacled and ancient, finds herself making pragmatic choices that tear at her soul – she hates the necessity of Bolingbroke’s rebellion because of her love for her nephew Richard, but supports him all the same.
This is a vividly memorable production, filled with sound and fury and spectacle , keeping its plot and character complexities clear and inevitable. The actors all wield Shakespeare’s dialogue as if they were to the language born, anger filling more subtexts than usual, eloquence echoing through every scene. The music and the rhythms color the production, leaving an indelible impression on your memory.
By staging Richard II with an all-BIPOC-female cast at the Globe Theatre itself, the producers give us not only a Richard II more immediate and contemporary than any we’ve seen before, but also give us a cast more than able to convince us of the reality of their characters, despite running counter to logically accurate portrayals of the gender and ethnicity. In in so doing, they reveal the emptiness of the Colonial Spirit, that English sense of land entitlement and dominance that colors most of the history plays.
And they also tell us a rippingly grand and elegant story of family and betrayal and regret,
Let us sit in our viewing chambers and watch another sad tale of the death of a king.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #SamWanakaerPlayhouse #BIPOCDistaffRichardII)
* It should be noted that these sketches are rarely seen in the actual video, which makes me sad.