In this Birthday episode, we discuss the women of colour who shape Shakespeare and Britain, Ulysses, and the all-women-of-colour Richard II. This is part-1 of a two-part conversation.
This episode is a collaboration with a special issue of the journal, Otherness: Essays and Studies. Edited by Dr. Anne Sophie Refskou, the special issue is all about 'representing (and misrepresenting) the title characters in Richard II and Richard II'. Listeners will find a wealth of both contextual material for Andoh's production as well as good companion pieces here: https://www.otherness.dk/journal/otherness-essays-studies-82/
Check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com for a complete transcript.
Interviewer & Producer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Adjoa Andoh
Artwork: Wenqi Wan
Part-Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award
Interviewer & Producer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Adjoa Andoh
Artwork: Wenqi Wan
Part-Sponsored by NYU Global Faculty Fund Award
Dearest, loveliest listeners. Hello, and welcome to 'Women & Shakespeare'. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani. And today is a really special day. Not only is it Shakespeare's birthday, it is 'Women & Shakespeare' podcast's birthday too. And when I thought about who I would like to invite for this birthday episode, I immediately knew it had to be Adjoa Andoh. When she agreed, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I'm going to be talking to Lady Danbury from 'Bridgerton'." And after I'd stopped being nervous, I did a little embarrassing dance in my living room and unfortunately that might have been the only exercise that I've done in this lockdown. Moving swiftly away from that confession, it is my honor to introduce Adjoa who has made a momentous contribution to Shakespeare. She has played numerous Shakespeare characters, such as Ulysses in 'Troilus and Cressida', Casca and Portia in different productions of 'Julius Caesar', Dionyza in 'Pericles', and the titular character in 'Richard II'.
She has also performed at different theaters and companies such as Shakespeare's Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she's an associate artist, at Lyric Hammersmith, The Bridge Theatre, the National Theatre. And I could go on and on and on. More importantly, through her acting and her productions, she has made sure that everyone and I mean, everyone feels invited to see and share Shakespeare. We decided that to do justice to her contributions, one episode was not enough. So for the first time, there will be two episodes with the same guest. Without further ado. This is part one. And I will let Adjoa invite you to share Shakespeare.
Hi, everyone. My name is Adjoa Andoh, and you are listening to Women and Shakespeare.
So we'll dive straight into the questions. I ask this question to everyone, because I'm fascinated by people's first encounters of Shakespeare. So Adjoa, when did you first encounter Shakespeare? And what was the nature of that encounter?
I think the first memorable encounter I have with Shakespeare was going to see 'The Tempest' with my best friend at primary school. We were eight and it was on in Bristol, which was our nearest metropolis. And we were going to see the 'Tempest', because the person playing Prospero was an actor called Arthur Lowe, who was in a series called 'Dad's Army', which in the UK, it's like a national treasure. It sat during the Second World War, and it's about the home guard. They were the sort of the blokes that were too old or too flat-footed or too short-sighted to go to war. So they were the home guard. So it was the butcher or it's the spivy guy that's got spare stockings in his jacket.
So Prospero was being played by Captain Mainwaring, the bank manager and the captain of the home guard. So for me, I was going to see Captain Mainwaring in Shakespeare. What else do you need? Job done before I'd even stepped into the theater. I remember practically nothing about the production. I just know Captain Mainwaring was in it and he was playing Prospero. That's all I needed to know. So, but my father, he came from the empire. Like many reasonably well-to-do children in country being colonized by the British, his education was more British than many British children would have had. So the classics was part of that. Shakespeare was part of that. And my father was a journalist before he fled the country. And so, literature was a huge part of our family. And my mother was a history teacher. She taught contemporary dance. And so, theater and performance was a part of her DNA. So I had literature from him and performance from her. So Shakespeare was-
Bound to happen.
A no-brainer really.
Oh, that's fantastic. This is a thing for celebrity casting in Shakespeare. It does draw in new audiences.
I think the invitation to see a Shakespeare is really important. How you make the invitation, who you make it to, through what platforms do you do that. So having a celebrity in it can be one of those platforms. And I'm always interested in not preaching to the choir necessarily, but getting in audiences who suspect that Shakespeare is the preserve of the middle classes and the privileged rather than for me, I think it's the opposite of that. So yes, how you make that invitation is always something that's really important to me.
I agree. And I think the more diverse we are, the more people will feel encouraged that Shakespeare is for them and go and see the theater. Well, let's talk about some very diverse and unusual casting choices. So you played the cunning Greek general, Ulysses with the Royal Shakespeare company in Greg Doran's production of 'Troilus and Cressida'. And since it is pretty unlikely that I will ever get to talk about Ulysses in 'Women & Shakespeare' podcasts, because not many women are going to be cast as Ulysses.
Oh, you say that you now Varsha, you say that now.
Hopefully, we will have many more Ulysses played by women, but I want to talk about your experience of this part. Did you enjoy it? How did you land the part?
Well, I've worked with Greg before at the RSC. I'm an associate there. So, and Greg and I, anoraks about Shakespeare. I love working with him. I love hearing everything he has to say about Shakespeare, because he's devoted his entire career to Shakespeare, I would say. It's his joy and his love and his delight. And I kind of feel similarly about Shakespeare. So he just emailed me and said, "Do you want to come and play Ulysses?" And I went, "Yes." And I love working in Stratford. I always try and wangle the same little cottage directly opposite the main theater. And I love being in Stratford. I go and I look at all the places that Shakespeare lived in, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So he emailed me and I said, "Yes." And then, because I've worked with Greg on several occasions, we were in New York with our 'Julius Caesar'. So I've done 'Julius Caesar' twice. I played Portia and I've played Casca.
And when we were in New York, I met James Shapiro and he had some really interesting takes on Ulysses, which Greg shared with me, which made me really think about the way that Shakespeare chooses to come into the middle of a war with this play. It's not like, "Oh, we know we're going to go to war. This has happened as the Greeks set sail, dumb de dumb." We're in the middle, we're seven years into the war. It's stalemate, it's dreary, everybody's fed up. The city is starving. They are frustrated. Achilles won't go and fight. That could be the decisive thing that finishes the war once and for all, everybody can go home, nothing is happening. And so for me, it's interesting. Why does he set it right in the middle of a war? It's not a climactic play. It's a play about the grind of war. And it's about the little incremental shifts in position that people take. And what happens when you've been stuck somewhere for a long time, the personal rivalries that happened, the internecine stuff that happens.
And Ulysses, they talk about him being a wily fox. So when I think of Ulysses, I always think of that snouty cunning. So Ulysses is the wily fox who has to try and shift this situation, not with force of arms, but by playing the psychological game, which he does, but he does a lot of manipulation about who's the best warrior, who's in love with whom, who wants what? To shift things. So I really enjoyed the cunningness and the strategizing of Ulysses. He has some of the most fabulous speeches. He has the speech about time. I think he's in act three, when he's talking to Achilles. And he basically says, what I love about Shakespeare is when he says those things where you just go, "Hmm-hm, no change there then." And he has this speech about, "Everybody's a young man once, everyone's a young man once, but at certain point there'll be new young people and they're going to rush past you," he talks about it as a tide that rushes past and you're left in its slipstream, your old news.
I remember when Tony Blair was our prime minister and David Cameron was a young up-and-coming politician. I remember him saying in the Houses of Parliament once, he says to Tony Blair, "You were the future once." And there's this, there's like this intake of breath, then everybody laughs, because it's that horrible thing where, because Tony Blair was the young, new, New Labor, woo-woo, here we go. All that's exciting and young. And then years go by, they'd been in power for over a decade. Here comes the new young whipper snapper going, "You were the future once," meaning, "And I am now," and indeed, not many years later, he takes power from the Labour Party and he becomes the new prime minister. So there are beautiful insights in Shakespeare. And the time speech is one of those beautiful insights into what it is to be a human being and to find your moment and then to watch that moment pass you by. And you just go Shakespeare, his insight into that is just *blows kiss*.
Absolutely, because all the insecurity as well, when you see power draining from you or going somewhere else, and obviously he explores that in other plays as well, what happens when you can see power draining from you and the repercussions of that, which I think is a very apt point to talk about another production, a very landmark production of Richard II. So you co-directed this production with Lynette Linton in 2019 at Shakespeare's Globe. And you also played the lead part in it. To begin with I want to talk about the show's poster, which was really arresting: it has your face in the foreground and the flag of St. George of England in the background. You've said in interviews that, "We," and by that, I think you mean black and brown women, "Own this flag as well, because we built this England." But over the years, how has England treated you as a black woman and as a black actor?
Well, I went to see Michelle Terry who runs the globe about a different play, which wasn't available. But she said to me, "We have Richard II." And Richard II was going to be running during Brexit, when we were officially supposed to Brexit the first time when we didn't. And at the time, the country was in this ferment of saying, do we want to be in Europe? Do we want to be independent from Europe? Who are we? Are we Europeans? Are we British? What does that mean? Are you Scottish Irish, Welsh or English? All of that. And so, when Michelle said that Richard II was available, which is the play that has this, "Sceptred isle," speech in, the great play that people take as their glorying of England and Englishness, I just thought, "That is a thrill. Give me that, I'm going to do that play."
And Michelle said, "Well, so what's your concept of it?" And I said, "Right, we're in the middle of this conversation about who is part of this nation, what it means to be a part of this nation. And I want to shake that conversation up. And the way I want to do it is I want to have a cast of all women of color. And I want those women of color to be women from every part of the globe that Britain colonized, because people from this island went somewhere else uninvited, did something there, made huge profits from their activities, and we've ended up having a relationship with this country." And having a relationship is a very nice way of putting it, I suppose.
So basically, because of the brutality, the kidnapping, the rape, the enslavement, the indentured-ness of adventurism from this country, this country made the money that allowed Britain to become great. I mean, you can do simple equations with, for example, the number of black bodies trafficked from the coast of West Africa, into the West Indies, sold to the West Indies and America and the money that came from that comes back to Bristol, and with that money, you build Queen Square, you build Park Street, you build a beautiful Georgian crescents, and you bring in the industrial revolution. You bring in manufacturing, you bring in scientific discoveries, you bring in more exploration. Britain was fantastic at doing that at our expense. There is no Great Britain without the enslavement of people from across the Asian continent, from across the African continent and various other bits of the world, right across the Middle East. Everywhere there is a horrible mess, pretty much it's either Britain or Europe that's gone in there and stuck their oar in straight away.
So I wanted to have this thought experiment that went, who is usually at the bottom of the heap everywhere? Women. And who was at the bottom of that empire heap? People of color. So let's have women of color, usually the most powerless demographic within that empire. Let's have them tell the story of that empire, because for me, it's not enough to have people on the stage. It's not enough to have the brown window dressing. You have to have people in positions of power and decision-making, and in creative areas, other than on the stage, you need. So that was my thesis with that production. And when Michelle said, "Who's going to play Richard," I was like, "I'm not doing all that work and not play Richard, are you kidding?" I was filming in Canada and I spent nearly all the shoot in Canada editing the play, because we only have 10 actors available, because the Sam Wanamaker Theatre was quite a small space.
So I had to get 26 characters in the play into 10 characters on the stage. So I had to re-edit the text and that took a long time, but it was great, because it's a great way to get to know the play and also to get to know the lens of the play that you choose. So I did all of that. I conceived that poster, because I wanted it to be arresting and I wanted it to be the challenge that goes, "See that flag of St. George? We made that. We had a part of that and we're going to be on it." And the other reason I wanted it was, because I wanted to make an invitation to people of color that this 'Richard II' was available to them. I wanted to make that strong invitation. So yeah. So that was the reason that I did it like that. And I knew that I wanted everybody involved in production to be a woman of color, which caused its own aggro, But I went, "Yes, you can find all women of color musicians. I'm getting a composer, photographer, designer, lighting designer, stage management, costume supervisor..."
All of those claims of, "Oh, there aren't enough photographers or there aren't enough people of color who are musicians and so on," your production proved them wrong. Your production proved that that is not the case. And I agree with you about the show's poster. I think it was making a statement, something that is often forgotten, because Britain doesn't like to think of itself as diverse when it clearly is.
I think the other thing to just say about that is it's a history play. My mother's a history teacher. I love history. And one of the things that I find most frustrating about the Brexit debate and any debates we have about citizenship in this country is nobody teaches all the history. I don't want Black History Month, you can keep it, you can tear it up and put it in the bin. I want all the history all the months, everybody's history all the time. So yes, you can talk about how marvelous it was that we had The Flying Scotsman, or you can talk about great discoveries of this, that, and the other. But if you don't talk about kidnap, rape, disenfranchisement, The Opium Wars, indentured labor in the West Indies, indentured labor in India, if you don't talk about the violence, repression of the Mau Maus in Kenya, all that stuff. If you don't talk about all the history, then you don't get the full context. Talk about the facts of stuff that was really happening here in terms of people's existence in this country.
I mean, there was a black Roman general BC who was over here, who was involved with the building of Hadrian's Wall. There are black musicians right throughout the court. You look at Nelson's column in Trafalgar square and iconic British symbol. If you look at Nelson, he's being held by a black sailor. Why? Because at the time of the Battle of Waterloo, a fifth of the British Navy were black. George III, the Madness of King George, the big thing, George III's wife, Charlotte, mixed race. She was descended from a relationship between Alfonso III of Portugal and his African mistress. And when she was born, there were complaints about her thick lips and her flat nose and that she looked like Mulatto and how dreadful it was. And then, she becomes the queen of England. Nobody... Everyone goes, "Oh, Meghan Markle." You kind of go, "Queen Charlotte."
Yeah. A history play makes that statement. "Look at your history again," "Look, what was there: rediscover it". I also have heard some really amazing things about the rehearsals of this particular production. So Dona Croll was on the podcast and she was talking about a lot of dancing and an evening of cultural sharing and so on. But at the opposite end of the spectrum, I have often heard from black actors again from Dona Croll, but also I've read Dawn Monique Williams, who was saying, that sometimes white directors just don't know how to engage with or direct black actors, because they're either too afraid or they don't know how to bring in kind of those cultural references. Is there any advice that you can give someone who is directing a black or a brown cast? What should they do?
So here's the thing. What often happens when you are the only person of color or if you're the only woman (because both things do happen quite a lot) is you feel that you are responsible to represent everybody of your race or everybody of your gender. And I hate that, all my life I've hated it. I'm like, "I'm not a thing, I'm Adjoa, I'm this unique person. And there is nobody else like me. And there was nobody else who would like the things I like in all the multifaceted ways that I do or don't like that. And there's nobody else with my flaws. And there's nobody else with my gifts." How should a white director direct a black actor? I don't know, be a person, direct a person, because there isn't a black actor or a brown actor. There's just a person there who hopefully has got some silky skills as an actor. Direct the person, work out how to work with them, because I can have a room full of black actors and each one will leave me to direct them differently, because it's a person, there's no such thing.
I mean, we have to come back to the conversation always that race is a social construct, because just scrape it off and underneath, it's Shylock, isn't it? "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?" This is not the thing. What society does with this is the thing. So this is all a social construct. The social construct is created in order to "other" people. And when the people are not regarded as of being equal value with you, then you can do what you want to them and you can feel less guilty about it. So I would say, "Get to know people." I mean, in our rehearsal room, I did the cultural sharing, because I have a belief in everything that when people have ownership of what they're engaged in, they commit to it.
They're not doing it to please teacher. They're not doing it, because they're scared, they're doing it, because it's theirs. And I had a theater company for 12 years, Wild Iris, this was a while ago. And one of the things that we always said was everybody gets paid the same, because it's everybody's work. Everybody has to own it, we all have to be at the party, or else it's not a party. So in our rehearsal rooms, I wanted to start off by everybody coming with something that resonated with them, I called it a cultural sharing. But I said, "You could bring a dance, bring a piece of music, bring a piece of fabric, poetry, a joke, a song, a film that you like, anything. But I want to know how you personally engage with this play that we're all embarking on together?" But interestingly, what people brought knitted us together as a family, like you wouldn't believe. Everybody had something to say about, "This was my grandmother's. And when she was fleeing [XYZ] she brought it with her."
So we had a woman who was our fight director was Israeli-Jewish. We had Iraqis, Iranians, Guyanese, Bajan Trini, Ghanaian, Nigerian. I can't even... It was endless, Chinese, Filipina, the variety of people who came with something deep and precious and put it, it's like everybody put it in your bank account. And they said, "Here's my investment," and then when we did the play, we drew on all our investments to make it work. And first day of rehearsals, we cried. Hard-bitten, old lags, like me who'd been in the business for three and a half decades, we all cried. And we cried for the relief of just being in a room as an artist, not a woman, not a woman of color, just an artist.
That was Adjoa Andoh and we are not finished yet. The next part is going to be releasing soon and we have a few extra surprises in store for you. So dear listeners, adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember to tune in to Women and Shakespeare streaming at Apple podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen for the full transcripts, head over to our website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then keep smashing the patriarchy.