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Richard II review at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London – ‘comes alive with a renewed relevance’

Ayesha Dharker, Adjoa Andoh and Leila Farzad. Photo: Ingrid Pollard
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Words change depending on who says them. So when Adjoa Andoh’s King Richard says: “This is no month to bleed”, the line pops, because in her and Lynette Linton’s co-directed production of Richard II, every character is played by a woman and it’s momentous.

Rajha Shakiry’s set design invites the mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and aunties of the cast to witness the occasion. Their portraits are printed in sepia on canvas and hung from the balcony in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre.

Metaphors aside, Richard actually delivers the line in an attempt to garner peace between his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Sarah Niles) and Thomas Mowbray (Indra Ové), who stands accused of plotting to murder Bolingbroke’s uncle. But his words are not enough. They fight anyway (in a scene beautifully directed by Yarit Dor), so he exiles them both. Bolingbroke later returns when he learns that King Richard has stolen from him to fund a war in Ireland. The events that follow result in his ascent to the throne as Henry IV.

It seems funny that the group of Shakespeare’s plays to which Richard II belongs are referred to as the History Plays, while Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus are called the Roman Plays despite also being historical. The former specifically cover English history, focusing on the reigning monarch of the time, but what feels more prominent in Andoh and Linton’s production is that Shakespeare was writing about the politics and social situations of his time: patriarchy, power, identity and exile. How they resonate today.

Andoh and Linton are a formidable pair and their direction transforms Shakespeare’s play into something visually irresistible: their staging is full of striking images. Niles brings a charming swagger to her portrayal of Bolingbroke, a tower of strength as he takes down the King. It’s a treat for the ears, too: the language comes alive with a renewed relevance. The line about forgoing their native English stings with the pain of the mistreatment of the Windrush generation; and when Andoh’s King asks “Still no wrinkles yet?” there’s a glint in her eye.

Shakiry’s design is the star of the show though. The floor and walls are gold, and the candlelight reflected in them is pure luxury. It feels fittingly ceremonial. As do the costumes, which take influence from the ancestral lands of the cast. They are made in fabrics of rich royal blues, deep crimson hues and (more) resplendent gold. Wearing them, the performers literally glow.

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Lynette Linton and Adjoa Andoh breathe new life into the first of Shakespeare’s history plays