Making sense of history: Adjoa Andoh on Richard II
“I am interested in you as a human being beyond your melanin and your genitalia.”
Adjoa Andoh is directing and starring in the first major production of Richard II with a company entirely made up of women of colour. In this interview she explores why now is the time for this production.
How did this production come about?
I went to see Michelle [Terry] about a different project entirely. Richard II came up and she asked me if I’d be interested. So we talked about the idea. I was very interested in it being a play that would be running while we Brexited. There seemed to me to be a lovely congruence between this national conversation that we are having, about who we are as a nation, and the challenges that Richard wrangles with: who he is as a divinely appointed monarch and as a human being, who he is in relation to his closest detractors and his closest supporters, how they respond to his ability or inability to govern as God’s chosen on Earth. What does everyone really want? How do you be something that you’ve been born into, is that who you are? All those sorts of questions were terribly interesting to me.
‘There seemed to me to be a lovely congruence between this national conversation that we are having, about who we are as a nation, and the challenges that Richard wrangles with’
Lets not forget Richard II is set at a time of great political national upheaval. Spoiler alert, he is the first King deposed — not killed in battle or captured by a warring nation or executed at home, but deposed and locked up. It’s a constitutional crisis. As time has passed since those early conversations, so the resonances grow. It has a flavour of Brexit, of plotting, when May was scrabbling around trying to convince a sceptical Commons of her wisdom and worthiness to lead the country. Also we look to the United States and Trump’s Mr Fixit ex-lawyer Michael Cohen’s revelations and the Mueller investigation and we wonder, will we see another leader of state deposed in the coming months? Or even at the civil unrest in France and across Europe with the gilets jaunes in opposition to austerity and threatened fuel hikes — reminiscent of the Wat Tyler peasants revolt in 1381, during the early part of Richard’s reign. Shakespeare is always pertinent at a micro and macro level.
So Michelle asked if I would be interested in directing this and I thought, yes I would — Shakespeare’s got the greatest wisdoms and there’s always something telling to discover in his work. Next Michelle asked who I’d want to play Richard and I said me — because I am not doing all that work and not play one of the most fabulous parts you can possibly play, why would you? Then I had to think about the madness of directing it and playing Richard.
How do you manage directing and playing the lead?
Well, I’m not completely bonkers, so I said I will co-direct it with my good friend and collaborator Lynette Linton, who I think stages things beautifully and has a great sense of storytelling. All of which is now justified as she’s just been appointed the new Artistic Director at the Bush Theatre — hurrah!
How are you approaching the production?
My big idea was I wanted to stage the play with women of colour as the actors who would realise it. Lynette was completely up for it and I suppose we wanted to create a space where women of colour could for once just come and be artists. A space where you could leave all the “Oh my god, I’m the only woman in the room”, “Oh my god I’m the only person of colour in the room” or a combination of the two at the door and, for once, just come and practise your art. So that’s on the sort of professional development/relief level.
We were also interested in seeing how it would be to examine Britain in the context of Brexit, in the context of the debacle of the Windrush generation of immigrants to this country who were citizens of the British Empire and what’s happened to them subsequently. We wanted to talk about the play in the context of Grenfell Tower, because the people in that building, the majority of people in that building, who suffered and died or survived in trauma, were people we would recognise — with a similar shared story to, say, my father — who came as immigrants from elsewhere and built a new life for themselves in this country. We wanted to talk about this country out of the mouths of people who could have been their children, or could have been them.
But I suppose the greatest provocation for why I wanted to do Richard II as an all-women-of-colour production was the World Cup. I love my football and when the World Cup is on we hang flags out of the kitchen window. If England and Ghana are playing there will be a great big flag of St George and a great big Ghanaian Black Star hanging from my kitchen window. Sadly Ghana was not playing last year so it was just the flag of St George. My daughter, who lives in Tanzania, rang me up and I said, “I’ve got the flag of St George up.” She went “Oh my God, mum.” And I said, “What?” and she said, “honestly” and I said, “That’s my flag, I’m having that flag.” I’m reclaiming the flag of St George.
‘I’m reclaiming the flag of St George.’
My great uncle lost his arm in the Second World War, fighting for this country. Ghana was a country of Empire, my grandfather was a surveyor who surveyed the land for the Commonwealth back in the 1930s. My family had been educated in Ghana on the lines of a British public school system — that’s the history that they were taught. The Empire has made this country what it is in terms of everything: slavery, post-slavery, colonisation, raw materials, people’s land, their history, their language, their everything has been taken by Empire and used to fuel the industrial revolution in this country. That’s just on the Ghanaian side. On the English side of my family I’ve got farm labourers and merchant seamen and a great grandfather who fought in the Boer war. My connections to this country are deep. I was born in this country, I was raised in this country, I have a right to claim that flag.
‘My connections to this country are deep. I was born in this country, I was raised in this country, I have a right to claim that flag’
And now we have historical evidence of Cheddar man, a dark-skinned, ancient human being on this island. So, when we talk about who belongs where, as we discover more with science and history it becomes a nonsense that only racists and fascists have a claim to this flag. In a way staging Richard II with all women of colour is about saying let’s double down on this ownership and have the people who are at the bottom of the heap of Empire, whose ancestors lives fuelled the growth of empire and who continue to contribute to this country, let’s have them tell the story of this nation. And in the context of Brexit, it’s not insignificant that without Gina Miller, a woman of colour, who took the government to court and received a lot of abuse as a result, there would be no parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process.
When you start a production, do you have an idea of where you want to get to or do you discover it along the way?
It’s got to be both. I set up the nature of things in terms of saying that I want the whole creative company to be women of colour, so the actors are, the other director Lynette Linton is, the designer is, the composer is, the musicians are, the fight director is, the voice coach is, stage management in the room are because, as Spike Lee says, “If you can’t see, you can’t be”. So, the production is letting you know you can be an actor of colour and do Shakespeare, no problem. You can be any member of the creative and stage management team as a woman of colour and do Shakespeare, no problem. Which cog in this particular creative machine do you want to be? You can be any of them, if you have the skill, the application and the interest.
We have young women of colour asking if they can come and watch rehearsals, if they can come and work backstage. We’ve got the first woman of colour to be made a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, Ingrid Pollard, documenting everything. Really, I’m trying to bring together a whole cohort of artists around this piece of work, sort of as an investment.
When you are cross-gender casting in this way, does it change the way you play?
Ok, so here’s the thing, I would say, we’re not cross-gender casting because we’re casting a whole company with women of colour. All the bodies in this production are women of colour. I am not interested in you coming and doing your best blokey acting or your best girly acting, I am interested in who your character is as a human being. This may sound ridiculous because we’re doing it with all women of colour, but in a way doing it obviates the conversation about women and colour at a stroke, because we are all the same — so what? I am interested in you as a human being beyond your melanin and your genitalia. In a way, doing a production like this is also a thought experiment into the universality of humanity. By saying we’ve all got the same signifiers so there are no signifiers, let’s tell the story.