Was Richard III inherently evil? Or was he othered, excluded and pathologised because of societal prejudices? What happens when the person who has been punched down, punches up?
These are the questions Adjoa Andoh will ask when she steps into the shoes of one of Shakespeare’s most notorious villains, who deceived and murdered anyone who stood in his path to becoming king of England.
Andoh, known for playing Lady Danbury in the Netflix hit Bridgerton, will direct and star in the production that premieres in Liverpool in April. Set in the West Country, the production reflects on the actor’s childhood in the Cotswolds in the 1960s and 70s as often the only black person in a white environment.
She “fell in love with Richard III as a kid” after reading Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s historical novel The King’s Grey Mare. “It was told from the perspective of Richard III’s sister-in-law, who hated him. Then Jarman wrote another book called We Speak No Treason, and that was from the perspective of all the people who loved Richard III. Between reading the two books I just fell in love with him.”
In particular, Andoh was drawn to a character whose physical appearance meant he was ascribed evil motives left, right and centre. “He was said to be the devil, Shakespeare really ran with that idea. And I identified with that as a kid. I wanted to take that childhood feeling of ‘it’s not fair’ and posit the question: what happens to a human being if all their life they’re told they’re evil and wrong?”
Richard III is a co-production by the Rose theatre in Kingston upon Thames and the Playhouse theatre in Liverpool. The 59-year-old will be the only person of colour in an otherwise white cast, which will allow her to fully lean into all her experiences of childhood.
“What I wanted to do with this production was talk about body pathologising,” she said. “So often these days Richard III is played by somebody who is differently abled, but I wanted to talk about the body pathologising that can also happen to you because you are of a different race, because you are of a different class. Because you are somebody of a different sexuality.”
Not only does this exclude a person from the mainstream of society, it can also put them in physical danger, she said. “For example, people would ascribe terrible motives to differently abled people years ago. They would say they were born with God’s curse and all sorts of terrible things that have nothing to do with anything but their own prejudices. And we’ve seen it this week with the conversation about ‘where are you really from?’ – that sense of not being accepted or acceptable.”
She said all people of colour were familiar with the question that was posed to a black charity leader at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday. “When people see this show I want them to reflect on those times when they felt they’ve been in spaces where they’ve been shunned, othered, or not given the space to just exist as a human being. And to reflect on the ways in which we do it to each other.”
Born in Bristol, Andoh has appeared in roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as Doctor Who and Casualty. In 2009, she made her Hollywood debut in the Clint Eastwood-directed film Invictus, and in 2019 she directed and starred in the women of colour production of Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe.
“We advertised Richard II to people in a variety of settings that weren’t necessarily your regular Shakespeare audience,” she said. “Because all that stuff is important to me. I think Shakespeare is fantastic, his plays are always user-friendly for any season. I want working-class audiences, audiences of colour, audiences that don’t normally go to see theatre to know it’s available and they’re welcome and invited.”
But she emphasised that these types of shows are not “modernised” versions of originals. “It’s telling the same story and casting it in a way that lets you reflect on that story,” she said, pointing out that the first black actor to play Othello was Ira Aldridge in 1825. “The first show I ever did was five black women directed by a black woman and written by a black woman in 1984.
“I want us to not keep reinventing the wheel. I want us to go: ‘We’ve done this before’. Otherwise we’re always like new people at the table. And we’re not, we’ve been at the table for ever.”
• Richard III is at Liverpool Playhouse from 6-22 April and at Rose theatre, Kingston upon Thames, from 26 April to 13 May.