Women and Shakespeare

S2:E4:Part2: Adjoa Andoh on Richard II, Inclusive Theatre Lighting, Julius Caesar

June 04, 2021 Dr Varsha Panjwani Season 2 Episode 4
Women and Shakespeare
S2:E4:Part2: Adjoa Andoh on Richard II, Inclusive Theatre Lighting, Julius Caesar
Show Notes Transcript

In this Birthday episode, part-2, we discuss the all-women-of-colour Richard II, inclusive theatre lighting, and Julius Caesar. 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/


The production was recorded by Andoh’s company ‘Swinging the Lens’ and is available here:
https://youtu.be/BHrXAJ93hRU

For a complete transcript, check out http://www.womenandshakespeare.com 

Interviewer & Producer: Varsha Panjwani
Guest: Adjoa Andoh
Artwork: Wenqi Wan 

Part-Sponsored by NYU (London)

Varsha (00:03):

Hello and welcome to Women and Shakespeare. I'm your host, Dr. Varsha Panjwani, and I have still not stopped celebrating Shakespeare's birthday. Mainly because it's an excuse to eat lots of cake and of course drink lots of ale. Well, I'm excited to present part two of Shakespeare's birthday episode in which I talk to the phenomenal actor and director Adjoa Andoh. Now in part one, I promised you some special extras. So I am thrilled that for the birthday episode, 'Women & Shakespeare' podcast has partnered with a special issue of the journal, *Otherness: Essays and Studies*. This special issue is on the topic of representing Richard. In the words of its brilliant editor, Dr. Anne Sophie Refskou, it 'brings together a cluster of analyses and conversations about representing (and misrepresenting) the title characters in Richard II and Richard III'. These articles are by scholars and creative practitioners from Mexico to Australia, from the UK and Denmark.

New Speaker (01:14):

I especially recommend that you listen to these twin episodes alongside Delia Jarrett-Macauley, and Emer McHugh's contributions in the special issue. Jarrett-Macauley, who incidentally you might remember was the first guest on this podcast, contextualizes and traces the cultural history that preceded the all women of color production of Richard II, directed Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton at Shakespeare's Globe in 2019. McHugh, who I very much hope will be a future guest on the podcast, provides a magisterial review of the filmed version of this production. The link to this freely available journal special issue and the freely available film of the projection is in the show notes. Now I know that you are keen to listen to Adjoa again, so I promise I'll stop talking, but just to reminder that in part one Adjoa talks about playing Ulysses, about Britishness, about history and about the rehearsal process of Richard II. So without further ado, let's pick up on the conversation.

Adjoa (02:23):

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.

Varsha (02:34):

Back to Richard II. The role has such an illustrious performance history in this country. Fiona Shaw has played it, David Tennant has played it, Ian McKellen has played it. Did you see any of these productions? What was your conception of the role?

Adjoa (02:49):

I actively didn't watch any of those, because I don't like having other people's performances in my head. I like to come to the work and find out who that person is for me. I did reflect on some of the performances after I knew who Richard was for me. I think Richard often gets played as a bit sort of camp and fey and weedy and I didn't see that in the text. What I did see was a child who lost their father and then their grandfather and was then sent abroad and told you are king. And I saw a lamb going into a field of wolf or these vying nobles wanting power in the country, wanting land. And here's a 10 year old child, basically unprotected, who has to navigate all of this. A 10 year old child who by the time he was in his teens has faced down Wat Tyler and the Peasants Revolt and come to some arrangement.

Adjoa (03:48):

When the country had been in company turmoil before that, after plague had decimated the country and left it in a very unstable state in his grandfather's time, because of course his father never becomes king. The black prince, he dies before he could have ascended to the throne. So you have this small child who's in basically a foreign country trying to work out who the people are, who will protect him and keep him safe. The queen has similarly being shunted over when she was nine. So this is the historical background. You don't see any of that stuff, but you see the outworking is that. You see insecure people gathering. They yes people around them. This boy who snagged the king, who just has a version of what he thinks the king is supposed to be, how do I be a king? And he understands the acquisition of that's important.

Adjoa (04:38):

Everybody respects acquisition and money. So let's have lots of it. Let's get more of it. So I think there's an aspect of that. He's not the big, good soldier like his cousin. He lives in the shadow of his cousin, who would've obviously would make a much better king. He's good at fighting. People like him. When he goes in the streets, people love him, but he's not the king. I'm the king. So I have to be the king. Everybody pay attention to me. It's that need. Love me. Love me. Love me. I just see a little boy going, "Pick me up. Someone pick me up." So that's how Richard resonated for me. So for him it's really important, this idea of the divine right of kings, god wants me to be the king. So I wanted to delve into how this undeveloped, unsupported person tries to manifest the most powerful person in the kingdom through the authority of the most powerful being in the universe.

Adjoa (05:35):

He believes God put him in this place at this time to be king of this nation. When he gives up his crown, his betrayal of God, that would kill him on its own. And you hear me talking about him as him and he, because for me the regendering of roles, I'm not particularly bothered about that. Play the person. Play their needs. Play their desires and their wants. I don't want people walking about the stage doing man walking. Just be a person and walk. How do you walk? You, Adjoa. You're playing Richard. Walk how you walk. Just do it. You don't have to pretend, just be with me.

Varsha (06:13):

I saw the production and I didn't think that any of you was consciously manning it up or anything like that. I thought that you played people and that is why it rang true. It resonated because you weren't then thinking about who's playing a man, who's playing a woman. All of that went out of the window and you concentrated on the story. And also the film of this projection is available in full on YouTube. And you are the director on that. And also it has been released by your company as well.

Adjoa (06:48):

Swinging the lens.

Varsha (06:48):

And I was wondering... Yes, swinging lens. I thought that was a brilliant name too. And what are some of the challenges and opportunities of filming that production? I mean, especially because Farah Karim-Cooper was on the podcast and she was saying that the space in which the production was played, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is not a space which works for women of color, because it had a black wall and is candle lit which doesn't work. I mean, it doesn't feel like it was a space built with people of color in mind. So did that pose additional problems for design and for filming? How did you navigate that?

Adjoa (07:28):

Well, so that space to me just says, "If you're of color, get off my stage." And I've seen shows that where I've just gone, "This may as well be a radio play for that actor and that actor, because I can't see their face." So one of the first things I did after sulking and stomping about the place, because if that space says you are not welcome here, if you're saying that to me on stage, what's it saying to me in the audience? Your type, your kind aren't welcome on this stage. So the first thing I said was to Rajha Shakiry, who was our amazing designer. She is the goddess among women and anybody that has the good fortune to have her design their show is lucky, is blessed. I said to Rajha, "Right, knock out all the black. We're going to clap the space in bamboo, because bamboo is a material that is found in the countries of all the people, all the heritages of the people involved in the production."

Adjoa (08:23):

And when I say the production, I'm talking about stage management as well and costume supervisor and everything else. So that was that. I wanted bamboo also because it is light but durable and it's a great surface for bouncing light off. So everything we did was about throwing light into the space. So if you see the floor that we had, it's very light colored material with two great, big brass strips down it. Again, it's light reflective and I wanted that. And then we just banged as many into that space as we could possibly get. And we, of course, we use them in different ways and there are moments where you want it quite dark and you just want a pool of light on someone's face. But then the other thing you have to do, is you have to work out how people can be close to a candle or be holding a candle or drop the candles or whatever we needed to do.

Adjoa (09:16):

So you drop the candles, you block out someone's sight line up there. So then you have to think about how you balance all of that stuff. So you have to do all that in order to get more light onto people. And literally I was going, "Okay, that actor has a really dark skin. We've got to get more candles on them." How do we get the candles on them so it doesn't look like, "Hello, I'm an actor lighting my face," as opposed to "I'm in the court and I'm having a rant with somebody about X, Y, Z." So again, what happens is, as actors of color, as a whole team of color, we end up having to do more work than if we were a white cast in order to achieve the same effect. So not only are we dealing with the text, with the naysayers who were going, "Well, these women doing it. These people of color," but practically we're having to do more work all the time.

Adjoa (10:03):

So there are scenes where that is Ayesha Dharker, who plays Aumerle, Richard's cousin, who Richard is in love with and who's in love with Richard. And then Leila who was playing the queen. And they're both standing there with candles next to my face. Why? Because we're sitting upstage and I got a great big speech. I need light. So we make it part of the scene like these are Richard's people and they are Richard's people. These two characters, Aumerle and the queen. They're loyal to the end, their whole lives they're loyal. And so you make it part of the ritual that they hold the candles next to the king, because it's what you do.

Varsha (10:42):

So a lot of work just to be in that space and perform absolution. I want to now turn to another play you were involved with Julius Caesar a lot and you were involved with it twice. So you played Portia in Gregory Doran's production in 2012 with Royal Shakespeare Company. And then also Casca in Nick Hytner's production. This play Julius Caesar really does have a very special kind of place in African writers and activists heart, I think because Delia Jarrett-Macauley who was also on the podcast, based her entire novel about child soldiers in Sierra Leone around that. And then in one of the videos that you have produced for RSC, you talk about how Nelson Mandela finds courage in that place. So after being in it twice, what is your relationship with that play?

Adjoa (11:36):

I love it. I love it. The way that those anti-apartheid political prisoners got courage for themselves, got encouragement for themselves was by having a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare smuggled in to the prison. It was in now, I can't remember what it was. Was it a sanscript text, but they covered the cover with something religious.

Varsha (12:00):

Yes. I know about it. Yeah. Religious images of various gods from India Lakshmi.

Adjoa (12:09):

That's right. And they all had different plays that they loved, but for Nelson Mandela, yes, it was, it was Julius Caesar saying, "Cowards die many times before their death. The valiant chase the death at once." And what I really love about that was, there's Nelson Mandela fighting against the tyranny of this racist state sanctioned and apportioning of privilege on, or not privilege, to a whole population. So he's fighting against tyranny and he chooses the words of a man who Shakespeare presents in some ways as the tyrant to be got rid off. So someone fighting tyranny uses the words of a tyrant as an encouragement to fight tyranny. There's something really beautiful about that, because what it says to you is Julius Caesar may have been the tyrant in some eyes, but he was just a man in other eyes and a man who had to give himself courage to face his life.

Adjoa (13:05):

And it brings me to the thing that I love about Shakespeare, is he doesn't like goodies and baddies. We may choose to stage things in that way, but that's really reductionist of us and quite dreary, frankly, because nobody thinks they're a baddie. We're all just living our life and doing what we think is the best thing at the time in any given set of circumstances. So there was a humanity to this man who people regard as tyrannical, even as you may see him due to in things there remains a humanity.

Adjoa (13:34):

And I think is something of the brilliance of that, that must have resonated with Mandela because he had to find a way to work with people who he absolutely was fighting against every value that they possessed in order to come to a reasonably blood free transition of power from the apartheid system to the rainbow nation system. So there's something about the resonance of taking the judgment out to find the practical way of seeing all the human beings. As you can see, I keep coming back to seeing human beings as human beings, because otherwise you can't engage with people.

Varsha (14:13):

What you have outlined, is he's seeing multiple perspectives and shades of a particular person, but also I think very practically you've opened up a very good lesson plan to actually study Julius Caesar alongside these political tracks, alongside Nelson Mandela say taking courage from it, alongside Delia Jarrett-Macauley's commentary on it or adaptation of it, because that is what I think will make it richer for the students to understand how it's participating in the history and how it's participating in the current moment. So I think there's a lesson plan in there.

Adjoa (14:48):

I think what's so wonderful about Shakespeare. Oh my gosh, I'm so boring, but what I think is so wonderful about Shakespeare, you're not talking about kings and queens and rulers and generals and blah, blah, blah. I mean you are, but you're not. You're just talking about us. And Shakespeare leaves that canvas so open for us to pour ourselves into it. And so that's what makes me go, "Why are we playing these women whiny?" We don't need to be whiny. Are you whiny as a woman? Are all women whiny?

Varsha (15:20):

Just to follow up on that, you were saying once that young women who perform Shakespeare for audition, sometimes they play these women characters as lacking in power. But at the same time, Shakespeare does ripe powerful women. I mean, you've played Lady Macbeth and you've played Portia and these are very powerful women in their own rights. So why do you think that is? Why do you think all these young women are them as heartless?

Adjoa (15:47):

For one thing, they often don't come into auditions doing those parts because I saw I'm on the audition panel at RADA, because you come in and you play characters generally who are in your playing range. So you're less likely to play a Lady Macbeth for example, than you are to come in and play Constance for Julia or Juliet. But these can be really biffy characters too. I just think that we've got into tropes about the way we do things and we don't need to. There is a deal of women coming into scenes and saying to their husbands, "Why aren't you speaking to me? I don't go to the war or this and you can do that. Why aren't you speaking to me? Don't go to the war." Or you can go, "Well, why aren't you speaking to me? Don't come to the war."

Adjoa (16:38):

There's ways of doing things and something I've really thought about with Portia, because I've seen so many Portia's where they sort of whine on that Brutus about things. And you go, no, at the end of that big scene, she's going to say, "Look at my leg." And later on, you're going to hear that she swallowed hot coals. Imagine as the coals come closer to your face, the intensity of the heat, and you're going to put that in your mouth, knowing it's going to burn your tongue out. It probably won't even get, it will burn out your throat. The woman that has the courage and the clarity of political thinking to go, "I am not going to be paraded through the streets as a prop after my husband is dead by Octavius. I'm not going to be that woman. He's not taking me as a sport. I am going to kill myself rather than do that."

Adjoa (17:29):

The woman that has the political nice to do that, is not a woman who "Why don't you talk to me? Who is this man?" She's going to go, "Hello? We married for love," because if you do the research, they were cousins and they weren't supposed to marry. And they floated everything and they married each other in spite of both their sets of families. She's the daughter of Cato the Philosopher from whom we get stoicism, the concept of stoicism. She would have been like the Jackie Kennedy of her time, Portia. Her family were political. She moved in political circles her whole life. She knew what politics meant and she knew what you need to do to strategize within policy. So when she talks to Brutus, it's one political brain to another political brain. Also it's two romantic hearts who love each other. So how do you have that conversation? So I'm always sort of saying, think wider. Think about the whole of who that person is.

Varsha (18:26):

And also even young women. Like you were saying, Juliet, she is so philosophical. She reasons everything. She tells us exactly why she will go after Romeo. Exactly why she'll go after Romeo, after Tybalt stays. So she's very reasonable. I don't know why. Yeah. I don't know why she's played as this kind of flighty or absolutely sheltered young thing. She's actually the most philosophical character.

Adjoa (18:54):

I know.

Adjoa (18:56):

Bold. She's bold.

Varsha (18:57):

Oh yeah.

Adjoa (18:57):

I love him. I'm going to marry him. I thought it was him, but no, it's him. Wrong family, don't care. Him.

Varsha (19:04):

Absolutely.

Adjoa (19:04):

Come on, night. Come on. I want to have sex. Let it be night now. Come on.

Varsha (19:09):

Absolutely. So I think that is a really, really powerful and amazing note to wrap things on. Play these women as these whole powerful, bold, political, philosophical characters. I mean, Shakespeare has written them. So I think own that language. Own that power.

Adjoa (19:27):

All of it.

Varsha (19:28):

Everything, yes. Absolutely.

Adjoa (19:31):

Yeah.

Varsha (19:31):

That's great. Thank you so, so much for sharing all your thoughts with us and leaving us with so much joy about Shakespeare and women.

Adjoa (19:40):

Well, thanks so much for having me and thank you for all that you do to just put us back in the conversation.

Varsha (19:47):

That was Adjoa Andoh, talking about women of color, Richard II, Julius Caesar, Portia and other powerful women, both on and off the Shakespearian stage. Next month, our guest is the academic and writer, Dr. Naomi Miller and we will be discussing her first novel, Imperfect Alchemist, about a brilliant mind in Shakespeare's time, Mary Sidney. Shakespeare too makes a little cameo in the novel and gets inspired. So to find out more, remember to tune in to 'Women & Shakespeare' streaming at Apple podcasts and Spotify. If you want to listen with the full transcripts, head over to our website, www.womenandshakespeare.com. Until then keep smashing the patriarchy.