Women of the world unite and...fight?
Review: Shakespeare's Globe, 5th March 2019
I cannot recall exactly when, but at some point I gave in to the theory that women would make better leaders in the world. Ruled by women, there would be fewer wars. Better and safer. More influenced by women, a nicer place at least. I must have learnt this in my younger days, when I was struggling to decide if I could be a feminist. Or perhaps a pro-feminist, the humbler form of the species. Or maybe I just had feminist sympathies. But that sounds patronising. Why would I offer sympathy to women for being women and wanting life to be fair?
A 21st century Richard II (Adjoa Andoh)
(photo: Globe Theatre)
And so we come to The Globe in 2019 for a performance of Richard II, with an all female cast. And straightaway I’m thinking
‘But Shakespeare’s histories are about male aggression, patriarchy, machismo and…war’
So why would a director want to cast all women doing things that are nasty and typically male? Is the Globe production team telling us that women are actually as violent, as dangerous, as bad as men? That they would make the same kind of leaders if only they had more opportunities? I hope not.
Shakespeare offers a few lines on this when he has Mowbray say…
"Tis not the trial of a woman's war,
The bitter clamour of two eager tongues,
Can arbitrate this cause betwixt us twain;"
Which we can take as both praise for women in not fighting with weapons but also belittlement since they only fight with words.
Still, what Shakespeare does not say is ‘this is not the stage for a woman’s performance.’
In terms of the roles of humans in the world, I have always expected better from women. Diplomacy, ingenuity, guile perhaps, peaceful measures certainly. The creators of life rather than the destroyers. True leaders, offering genuine hope.
But I sense I am missing the point. The point must be that there is no equality in the theatre let alone real life. In this case, the Globe is demanding 100% equality; i.e. no men on stage in this production, just as no women were permitted to tread the boards in Shakespeare’s day. This seems reasonable. Engaging. Intriguing.
Not knowing the plot, I imagined I would see females presenting themselves as aggressors, war mongers and killers. Power-brokers and traitors, too. But how exactly were they going to act? Brilliantly, I suspected.
Time to get intersectional. The cast for this production of Richard II has more than one essential thing in common. Quoting the Globe Theatre, this is
“the first ever company of women of colour in a Shakespeare play on a major UK stage…”
The Globe has brought together quite a collection of actors from different ethnic backgrounds with different accents, playing characters who come together in a version of England that is influenced by Africa, the West Indies, the Middle East, South Asia and the Far East. England, then.
The full cast for Richard II at The Globe (photo: Ingrid Pollard)
Adjoa Andoh, co-director and actress in the title role points out :
“We’ve come up with materials, designs and practices that have a familiarity across those nations”
This is wonderfully reminiscent of the approach taken by Marvel and the makers of the movie Black Panther in the creation of Wakanda.
But here, once the play commenced, my initial impression was that this was rather more a case of African Shakespeare lite. An attempt to do something similar to the RSC’s touring production of Hamlet, but executed not quite as well. King Richard wore a feathered crown and carried a horse hair sceptre, Moroccan style. The combatants Bolingbroke and Northumberland used sticks instead of swords to fight their duel. There was plenty of rhythmic music and chanting. Richard repeatedly cried:
to command the attention, if not the obedience of her subjects. As an aside, I cannot find a definitive spelling for this exclamation in an African language.
King Richard (Adjoa Andoh), holding court
(photo: Evening Standard)
The setting soon developed into somewhere both wider and narrower. This was England, just not a typical Shakespearean England. An England encased in bamboo within the oaken frame. The Duke of York's accent sounded incongruous at first, but on reflection this was entirely normal for an English courtier from the north, played by Coronation Street favourite Shobna Gulati. In contrast, Leila Farzad played the Queen as an ultra pitch-perfect Asian wife to the often frenetic, earthier, African/English king. And so we had a bit of a mishmash of voices on stage. I find this praiseworthy in many ways. This casting gives everyone a voice, a chance. And yet here it also seemed to create an irreconcilable challenge to the dramatic unities. Was it possible that for Shakespeare’s Richard II, there were just too many different voices and accents? And even too much of a gender switch? This is all still taking so much unravelling for me. More than ever I need to dive into the programme notes to explore these challenges further.
The Duke of York (Shobna Gulati)
(photo: Evening Standard)
Bernardine Evaristo, writer and social commentator, is a staunch advocate of “cross-casting” as a means to achieve equality. She says:
“Casting that crosses age, race, gender, physical ability etc should be the norm”.
In many ways, then, the Globe Theatre is getting it exactly right.
“The whole idea of being an actor is that you perform characters who are not yourself”
To all of this I say:
'Yes, but you have to be believable and convincing.'
And I cannot say I found the performance all that believable or convincing. I know that Richard is likely to be frantic at the end, but this Richard appeared to be frantic and unstable all the way through. This Bolingbroke had so little charisma and stage presence. All together, I found this production brilliant for the cast, for the acting profession, and for many others in this audience and more widely, but for me, confusing in terms of dramatic effectiveness and a bit of a let down for a Shakespearean night out.
It wasn’t just me. After the performance, walking away along the South Bank, I overheard this from another member of the audience, a woman of colour in case you're wondering:
“I want to see the proper version now”
I instantly understood this statement to mean:
‘I enjoyed the performance but would now like to see a production with a man playing the king.'
I felt exactly the same way. In subsequent conversation, skating on thin ice, I know, I asked if diversity of voices and accents might also challenge the concept of a proper Shakespearean performance, but her answer was a categoric 'No'. Her preference was all about gender. She explained further that the Richard we had seen had come across as a bit too hysterical.
Casting and Representation is explored further in the related Connected Cultures feature on Richard II: The Story of England?
Getting back to my expectations of Violence – to answer my pre-performance questions, I was surprised to discovered there was actually very little physical aggression in this tale of kingship and nationality. I counted only two killings, and one of those was sort of by mistake, the other incidental. A far cry from the great battles in the Henry plays.
James Shapiro, academic, points out
“Even the prospect of stage combat keeps fizzling out”
This is certainly the case when the king halts the duelling. Shapiro continues:
“The real engines of conflict in this play are political and psychological”
So, maybe this lack of violence makes the play especially suitable for the presentation of women after all. In the representation of characters, in human terms, in a performance by female actors. For now, I am clinging on to the theory that women are less prone to violence than men in real life. On stage, there are several more histories for me to explore. Talk to me more about equality once I’ve been through the entire canon.
As for nationality, race and colour, for me the casting was both a triumph and a distraction. A welcome statement on equality. A superb opportunity to enable what needs to happen. But the collective was somehow not as impressive as I had expected. There was also a sense of the extraordinary taking place, which is normally a good thing, but in this context it seems to be exactly the opposite of what was intended. But I celebrate the endeavour, the passion and the commitment.
The Globe Experience
A few words now on the venue.
I love the Globe Theatre for many reasons, but I found myself in one of the worst seating arrangements ever! A cramped first row in the upper Gallery in the Sam Wanamaker playhouse. I had to lean forward and peer down through the chandeliers. They were only ever briefly lifted high out of the way. I can tolerate uncomfortable seats but the awkward sideways viewing plus the restriction (candles rather than columns) were just too much. And when you sit back the people in the row behind have put their feet forward into your space, and you have to push them away with a shove of the back that feels rude and aggressive, even though they started it!
Close to the action, at a wonderful venue, but an uncomfortable vantage point
Furthermore, yet gain, there was a mad rustling of a packet of something bought by a playgoer from the Globe café during the interval. Please stop selling this stuff. So many do not know how to behave at the theatre, how to respect the occasion and others around them. Don’t encourage them to misbehave! This is not the Odeon cinema, and these intrusive sounds are not welcome even there, let alone in Shakespeare’s wooden O.
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
See the Connected Cultures feature: The Story of England here
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre: Richard II