The Story of England?
Probing nationality, race, gender and universality
Much has been made of Richard as the great play about England. This seems rather bold. It certainly deals with sovereignty and politics and the transfer of power, and is so relevant to now, as well as to various other points in English history. Co-director Adjoa Andoh has gone wider in calling the play a “universal story”. A story about all of us. For all of us. But what is the actual storyline within Shakespeare’s play?
The Story in a nutshell
Weak king. Financially incompetent. Lacking in command and respect from his subjects. Banishes his cousin for lack of obedience. Goes to Ireland to quash the dangers to England from there. Comes back, finds he no longer has any support. Bolingbroke has come back too, ending his own exile early. Richard’s former supporters have defected to Bolingbroke, who is now proclaiming himself Henry IV. Richard has no choice but to abdicate and present Henry with the crown. The outgoing King cannot fully accept the change. Gets imprisoned in the tower. Murdered by a minor character who misunderstands Henry, with a hint of homage to the story of Thomas A Beckett.
Richard II, as he appears in the National Gallery
On the surface, this seems to be a story that does not have much to do with our modern everyday lives. Who overthrows a king, honestly?! Richard II did not make me reflect much on my own personal story.
This is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, though, and his tragedies tend to have warnings that we would all do well to heed. It's not nice to be reminded that we are in a bit of a sorry state now in 2019, but we really do have to face up to it.
The relevance is certainly there if we are talking about politics and themes rather than the roles and titles of the characters involved. Lately, we have heard so much talk of parliament taking back control, and investing hope in new leaders, and the collapse of the old parties, all of which are not so very far removed from the deposition of divine rule and bloodless coups in late medieval times. Prime Minister’s Question Time and cosy chats at Number Ten. Conversations that start well but fizzle out in ridicule with no real progress and nothing resolved. All a bit like the duels demanded by Bolingbroke and Mowbray. They barely happen and leave an entirely unsatisfactory outcome.
Dig a bit deeper and we see more about the essence of the human condition. The personal and the social as well as the political. Who we are and what defines our identity. What it means to be English. What links us and what tears us apart. Strikingly, in the current Globe production, the casting effectively becomes the story. Or rather the story of the cast takes over the play. And here we see a celebration of diversity, with positive discrimination to the fore.
This may be the story of England, then, but in claiming that this is the universal story, I tend to think the co-directors are mixing up the story with the staging. To me this production is specifically the presentation of the story of England for those who have previously not been properly included and have not been allowed to present their own version of events.
Adjoa Andoh, actress and co-director, states:
“we’re doing it with women of colour, because Richard II is the great play about England, and I wanted the people at the bottom of the empire telling the story”.
Agreed. We have the setting, the politics, the history. But more so, we have actors who have not previously had equality of opportunity either on the stage or in the wider world. Actors whose heritage reminds us of Britain’s colonial history and the subjugation of peoples deemed inferior. Actors who are now leading the way in the presentation of one of the great cultural artistic forms, here alongside the River Thames in England. And so yes, England is the story. I’m beginning to see that now.
King Richard II of England (Adjoa Andoh) (photo: Globe Theatre)
“a universal story that will have some application to inspire and encourage or make people reflect on their own lives”.
Yes, and no. A universal production, perhaps. A universal cast? Going some way towards this. But a story that everyone can relate to? I’m struggling a bit to agree with this. By shifting the representation, I suppose the other side to the story is revealed. Certainly another side to the story. I am feeling myself tugged towards universality more and more. There may be no universal perspective, but the history is shared by all of us.
On gender and equality
In the Globe programme notes, Delia Jarrett Macauley states:
“We need to see women tackle these challenging powerful, meaty and complex male characters”
Why exactly? Once again, I see this in terms of opportunity of equality. Completely. This means that we will get the best society, and that this wonderful cultural form of artistic creativity is open to all. The presentation / the telling of the story will be done by all. But I wonder if this also means that sometimes the outcome will not necessarily be the best production. I refer you here to my review of the Globe production. I suppose it depends on what we mean by ‘best’. And what is relevant. And what the story is. I find I’m slipping back into doubt mode all the time.
What would Shakespeare make of this?
I really can’t speak for the Bard, but in my opinion, I think he might have a bit of a chuckle at the tendency of progressive, socially inclusive theatre makers (who in many ways I back to the hilt), to think that Shakespeare was perfect. All things to all men and women. A feminist. An anti-racist. A BAME champion. Not necessarily! We have seen from Othello, Merchant of Venice, Titus Andronicus and The Taming of the Shrew that Shakespeare’s attitudes and intents are open to interpretation.
Adjoa Andoh describes Shakespeare as “a great humanitarian”.
Yes, broadly speaking, but this is partly wishful thinking and a very positive, contemporary spin on his character and his representation of humanity in his plays from long ago.
“Shakespeare writes for everybody and everybody is welcome”.
I’m really not sure about that. I think this smacks of the glorification of Shakespeare, which is appropriate in many ways but there is ever a risk of giving him too much credit.
Getting back to today
In a variation on what the story is about, Lynette Linton, fellow co-director, talks about
“what Richard II stands for”.
She sees clear links between the setting and the storyline of Richard II to Brexit, Trump, Grenfell, and #MeToo. These links are all about our reactions as a 21st century society. And we are always on the lookout for similarities with the past. This makes so much sense. We need directors and actors to realise their vision, for our wider awareness.
In Act 2 there is a scene with John of Gaunt which I defy anyone not to link to our current times. The role of England within Britain, the role of Britain within Europe. And our individual and combined relationships with the entire world. Notably, Britain’s colonial history. This country. The historic will of the English people, and what we have become:
“England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.“
(Act II, scene i)
John of Gaunt (Dona Croll) with Bolingbroke
(Sarah Niles) at The Globe
(photo: Evening Standard)
Confining this to our current interface with Europe, this is so, so relevant to Brexit. On the night I was at The Globe, these lines got a bit of a reaction from the audience. On official press night, the response was apparently much louder. Let's hear some more...
“This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands,--This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
This was delivered in a sad, reflective tone by the dying John of Gaunt. An appropriate tone perhaps, but this came as a disappointment to me. I had always imagined these lines were delivered by the king, in grandstand fashion. But what is the value of grandstanding? We do not want to be associated with anyone trying to make their country great again, especially if it is our own. And especially when our country is actually collapsing. We can only be in denial so much.
If only Theresa May would go to Northern Ireland and mainland Europe one last time each, and come back and finally acknowledge that she has no support whatsoever. If only this would lead to her being deposed. She is a PM, of course, not a monarch, but she likes to think she is the head of state. Certainly she is the stubborn bone-head of state. Blind to the truth and all the country around her. The trouble with deposing her, of course, is that worse is likely to come in her place.
True leadership comes through listening and unity
Shakespeare’s histories cannot be tied down to our own version of power mongering. He was jolly good at presenting the body politic and the way a nation lurches from one disaster to another, and how this impacts on neighbouring countries. But he also had so much to say on the plight of the human condition and how individuals find their way through life and their own personal circumstances.
On acting, no doubt he had a lot of views about how his plays should be performed, and by whom. It would be nice to think he was a champion of diversity and universality. If only we had an autobiography. Instead, all we have are his creative works. And, as ever, there is so much room for debate. But in the end, we cannot get bogged down in debate. We must be progressive and move forward together.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
See the Connected Cultures review of Richard II here
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre: Richard II