“And I suppose for me, if I’m honest, this play is a little love letter to all the little Richard III kids, and adults who because of what they look like get treated differently, get body searched when they are children and get jailed in greater numbers than they exist in the population.” Adjoa Andoh
Talking candidly Adjoa Andoh ahead of the highly-anticipated Richard III at Liverpool Playhouse which has now opened on April 6th and runs until April 22nd, then it moves to the Rose Theatre Kingston @Rosetheatre from April 26th to May 13th. ALT sat down with the actor to talk about her craft, why she loves and can relate to Richard III and Shakespeare’s works and representation on which she states, we (people of color) need to be “…in front of camera, behind the camera, backstage, in design, we don’t need lots more traineeships. We have many, many skilled people”.
Her love for Richard III is born from recognising the notion of fairness, as Andoh puts it. “I’ve loved Richard III since I was a little girl. I had a real strong sense of it’s not fair, somebody being judged for what they look like”. Andoh stars in Richard III and and directs it, if you recall she co-directed Richard II with an all-female and Black cast at the Globe in 2019, a truly historical moment.
The actor who is more recently known for playing Lady Danbury in #Bridgeton has an impressive resume including being part of some of the UK’s iconic shows.. Roles include a Hollywood debut in the Clint Eastwood movie #Invictus, many would remember her as Colette in Casualty, Francine Jones in Dr. Who. On stage, she has played lead roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre and the Almeida Theatre to name a few.
Congratulations on Richard III in regards to acting and directing one would see it like a natural, normal process. But why do you do it?
I have dreamed about doing this play for years, and I wanted it to be how I wanted it to be. I’ve loved Richard III since I was a little girl. I had a real strong sense of, it’s not fair, somebody being judged for what they look like, not for who they are. And as a little Black girl, one of three black people in my village, the other two being my dad and my brother.
I resonated really strongly from that child’s place of it’s not fair, you don’t even know me. Why are you mean to me? You don’t even know me. If you know me and I’m horrible, then you can be mean to me, but if you don’t even know me, it’s not fair. I really got that from Richard III that he felt very much to me like somebody I could identify with. And I suppose for me, if I’m honest, this play is a little love letter to all the little Richard III kids, and adults who because of what they look like get treated differently, get body searched when they are children and get jailed in greater numbers than they exist in the population.
Tell us a bit about the story and how much it plays into the original text and what you bring to the story?
The story is the original text. I haven’t changed the story at all. I’ve done an edit because it’s the longest Shakespeare play and my God, we all need to get the last bus home. So I’ve hacked and I’ve hacked it severely. but that’s what you do when you edit a Shakespeare text. You have to make it a length that people can live with. It is still long.. So what are you going to do, it is what it is. But basically the story is of two brothers, three brothers, Edward, big brother Richard, middle brother, Clarence, youngest brother, the younger baby brother has already been killed and they are fighting, against Henry VI for the crown of England. Henry VI had their father killed and their brother killed. When we find the top of the show, we find Edward has just become king.
It’s happy days. But Richard, in our production is not differently abled. He’s black, he’s me, but the pathologizing of the body is the same. So, you know, when you listen to the text and you hear all things that are good, are fair, and then you hear him being called hell’s black intelligence, everything that is negative is black, it’s dark, all those sorts of words. Then you hear the way he’s taught. His mother says she wishes she strangled him at birth, amongst other things all the way through the show. What I wanted to look at is, this man has always been ostracized because of the way he looks from birth. His mother has thought he was a hell hound and wish he’d never had him. And he goes to war fights for his brother to become King, he’s good at being a soldier, but now we’re in a time of peace.
So he’s not the good soldier anymore. He’s gone back to being that person that looks different from everybody else, who they all think is a bit of a joke and they all bully and they all treat badly. And my question is, what happens if you punch down on someone long enough when they turn around and punch up? So this play is Richard III having been punched down upon punching up. But within that, people can say , oh, you are doing your woke interpretation, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. No, I’m looking at a human soul that is sufficiently damaged, that human soul ends up having to defend, defend, defend, and then is goes from defending into a place of I have to be safe. I have to be safe. How do I get safe? I get rid of everybody that might make me unsafe.
And it doesn’t make him happy. And it doesn’t make him safe, is the point. But you hear this man says, “I shall despair. There’s no creature loves me, and if I die, no soul shall pity me”. That’s what he says about himself and he’s the only one that loves him. And there’s a possibility in the play that he might be loved. And he, he cannot believe it. He says, “Upon my life, though I cannot, she thinks that I am a marvellous proper man”.
And it’s like, oh, he finds someone who might find him lovable and it doesn’t last. I wanted to say to all those children, that’s me. I’m talking to myself. This is big me talking to little me. Just because you look different, that doesn’t mean that your soul is not sweet and that you shouldn’t have the possibility of living in the miracle of being alive in this world. Because it is a miracle and we all deserve the possibility of that. History is history. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, the story is the same. Richard does what he does, but I want you to understand what the possibility might be that human beings are not born evil. Human beings get damaged and human beings yearn to be loved and seen and delight in the world. And that’s kind of what I want to do with this play.
I’m playing it in an all-white cast so that people understand the lens that I’m looking through, looking at the show with but I’m making sure, for example my brother is the musical composer the DSM is a woman of color, the fight director is a woman of color. Our still photographer is a woman of color. Juanne our publicist is a woman of color. So I’m trying to with the production on stage I want you to understand it’s an isolated person in a different society. But in terms of the creative process. I’m trying to keep it balanced in terms of diversity within the creative people involved.
What are some of the joys and challenges of directing and starring?
Well you have to keep all the balls in the air all the time. So I’m in a scene with people and I am, me as an actor being the character in the scene and trying to discover all those moments and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But also, my director’s head is also one going, yeah, we need to shift that shape there. No, no, you need to gimme that, that I need to, I don’t quite understand what you’re saying. So you are sort of schizophrenic the whole time. You know doing this play, it’s a dream. I dreamt it, there’s music in the play that literally came to me in a dream, that is in the play. It ends the play in fact. So for me the privilege of being able to have the play I’ve loved for the last five decades on stage, that I get to shape it, to tell the story of it, to imagine what I want the design to be, to set it where I grew up with the voices and the accents of where I grew up. and then to be able to play that character is really important for me.
And I suppose the other thing to say is there are lots of children of color that grew up like me in rural environments, and we always assume that people of color, you know, words meaning black when you don’t want to say black, we say urban, but actually so many people that have come to this country from other places have come from rural, rural West Indies, rural Africa, rural Southeast Asia, rural East Asia, I wanted to also put in the mouth of me as a woman of color, the accent that I grew up with. That is my accent. I want to say we are allowed to be in those places too. In fact, we were, and have always been in those places too. So can we please see ourselves represented in a variety of places? The assistant director also of color grew up in Somerset. I grew up in Gloucestershire. that is our truth and our reality, and we deserve to have that story told too, because we’re not the only ones. And so I want other people of color to go, hi, me too.
I mean truly. I saw somewhere you were doing an interview and talking about the Maypole dancing, and I said, oh yeah, I remember May Day <laugh> and that horrible little dress I used to wear <laugh>.
(laugh) Yes the Maypole exactly. And you know, my father sang in folk clubs because he’s got music in him. So we’ve got folk music all the way through it as well. And Morris dancing and actually if you look there are African traditions of spirit talking. And if you look at Morris dancing, which comes from Moorish dancing then you get all those connections between those land, people and traditions.
So in terms of representation, because we’re talking about that now, what are you excited about in terms of what’s happening now in the industry and what changes do you still think we need to push through?
I would still say we need more people in the back office, not just in the front office. we need to see real changes that are not performative changes. we need to see companies not trying to look right on, but actually being right on. So for our people to be in front of camera, behind camera, backstage, in design all, we don’t need lots more traineeships. We have many, many skilled people. We need them. We need jobs. We need them to get gigs, not be put on training schemes.
Two more questions. I can’t talk to you and not talk about Lady Danbury. What did you like about playing that character and the importance of that character?
I’m, we’re still doing it. The Bridgeton prequel, Queen Charlotte comes out on May 4th I’m in that a bit. What I love about Lady Danbury is that I can go into an office building in downtown Atlanta and a big ass security guard, tall black man gets down and gives me the full curtsy. We were always in the history and we deserve to be acknowledged as such. So I love the fact, I don’t think, in the main historical dramas unless set in Iceland in 500BC or something, and I bet you still there would’ve been a person of color in that village or whatever that settlement. I think it’s been a game changer in terms of the way we think about, costume period pieces, from now on I think you have to have an active reason why there’d be no people of color in your costumed period piece. And it may be, as I say, if it was Iceland in 500BC, you could do that.
But, you know we have been a part of this country’s story, this country existence, in the financial and power packing way that it does above the side of the geographical land mass because of us, and we should be in the stories because we always were. Queen Charlotte when she came to this country, people complained about her mulatto skin and her thick lips and her ugly wide nose. It’s imprint people complained. They don’t complain if she’s a European white looking woman. So it’s true, she was here, she existed and she existed because all of that history. I love history. Just tell all the history, all of it, good, bad, indifferent, whatever. But let’s have all of it. Because if we have all the knowledge, we can stand in truth and we can move forward in our lives in truth, if we don’t have all the knowledge, then we live on lies and we can’t live in a healthy way in lies.
Can you explain Richard III writing on a heartbeat or being the heartbeat of Shakespeare’s writing. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
Shakespeare writes on a heartbeat always. I think people get a bit academic and intellectual with his plays and really, they should just get back to the human because he writes on a heartbeat all the way in his plays. Why? Because he’s interested in the human and the heartbeat that we all share and the stories that we all share. So it’s easy for me to take this story, open it out in a different way. And for me it’s all about feeling. Richard he’s all feeling. He can calculate and all that stuff. But why does he do it? He says at the beginning, since I cannot prove a lover and then entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain and hate the idol pleasures of these days.
He doesn’t start off by saying, I want to be a villain. He says, since you won’t let me be loved and lovable, the only way I can go forward, I can’t keep going. Please, please, please, please, please, the only way I can keep going forward is to I’m gonna smash my way in then if you won’t let me in, I’ll smash my way in. So for me, it’s all feeling, it all comes from a place of exclusion and yearning and craving love. That’s what we all want. We all want to be loved and seen and valued for who we are, not what we look like. Judge me on the content of my character, not the color of my skin. Martin Luther King said it’s the same conversation.
Andoh is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature since July 2022.
Richard III is at Liverpool Playhouse from 6-22 April. Moving to at Rose theatre, Kingston upon Thames, from 26 April to 13 May.
ROSE THEATRE KINGSTON: https://rosetheatre.org/whats-on/richard-iii/book-tickets