Richard III Review – Adjoa Andoh’s Maverick Reinventing Drag

This production, which traces the rise and fall of the “sharply stamped” Shakespearean anti-hero, follows Adjoa Andoh’s brilliant performance as Richard II four years ago in a celebrated retelling. This has all the hallmarks of a similarly maverick retelling, set in the heart of the Cotswolds countryside, characters sporting broad accents, with no courtly pomp in sight.

It’s also clearly a passionate project led by Andoh. Where Richard II was co-directed by Andoh and Lynette Linton, here he exclusively directs and plays the Duke of Gloucester. In the programme, Andoh talks about growing up in the Cotswolds, isolated amidst the predominantly white community that surrounds her. That idea seems to extend to the figure of Richard and the work as a whole, which is heralded as an examination of race and trauma.

Andoh is surrounded by a cast of mostly white middle-aged men, albeit a last-minute replacement for Harriett O’Grady’s Lord Hastings (who does a great job, not even a script in hand) after Clive Brill she fell ill during press night, which meant she wasn’t the only black actress on stage. However, the intention is still clear in drawing Richard as an isolated and different outsider.

The problem is, it’s hard to see this villain baroque in a sympathetic light. Andoh’s Richard is always compelling to watch, deep throating one minute, screeching the next, but he seems like an incoherent character.

At times, she plays wickedness, taking on what appears to be the same old-fashioned disposition of Hamlet in feigned madness, and at other times she is desperate, confessional, lonely. But Richard remains the villain and amoral seducer, most alive when he convinces the grieving Lady Anne (Phoebe Shepherd) whose husband he has murdered, of his covert love for her, and grieving mother in Elizabeth Woodville (Rachel Sanders, superb ), lamenting the murder of his children at his hands, his loyalty to his remaining daughter.

Andoh also brings edgy comedy to the part, variously yelling or clapping with intriguing gusto. And when Amelia Jane Hankin’s rather stripped-down set (including a tree in the centre) is suffused in the golden glow of Chris Davey’s lights, coupled with Yeofi Andoh’s folksy score, it is reminiscent of the Forest of Arden. The characters wear the rough and simple tunic of the peasants and this could very well be a comedy or a Shakespearean love story (Clarence’s two executioners give a particularly ironic comic twist).

But the comedy confuses and alienates, as well as the choice to present the young Duke of York (one of the two princes of the tower) as a puppet.

There is a distinct lack of movement even on stage and the actors often stand in static, inert rows, and the scenery hardly changes. Some lines are sung rather than spoken and this works well in the opening as Richard’s “winter of our discontent” speech is delivered as a refrain which he sings, but comes to sound tense.

The game is gradually deprived of its intrigue, dragging on where it should gather momentum. It’s a shame as there are some lovely elements and ideas, including beautiful shadow work. There are several strong takes as well, but they are ultimately hampered by the larger vision of the production.

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