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Richard III: Anti-racist Shakespeare, or the casting of our discontent?

Joseph Kloska, Adjoa Andoh and Liz Kettle in Richard III (Photograph: Manuel Harlan)

In Britain and America today, there is a culture in media criticism (an industry that is largely white) that still does not see Black-lead creative projects as relatable. Stories that are not “Black stories” but simply stories that feature Black people in many ways are not seen as “human” because our stories are not “universal” (apparently). This lineage goes as far back as the 1980s and 1990s where in cinema, unless Black people were playing stereotypes, white producers with greenlight power could not see the appeal.

One of the greatest film critics that ever lived, the late bell hooks, also wrote about whiteness in this myth of universal “sameness” in her book Black Looks. Films like The Secret Life of Bees (2008) adapted from the novel by Sue Monk Kidd is a story about a white girl who is effectively taken in by three Black women beekeepers. Their race is not vital to this story, they are simply three women that happen to be Black.

More recent texts including Attack the Block or even broadway show Hamilton as well the musical Six tell stories that aren’t “race stories” but stories where some of the lead or supporting characters just happen to be not white, or have used “colour-conscious casting” to tell old stories in new ways. Film scholar, Richard Dyer, further writes that white people “…speak of … the blackness or Chineseness of friends, neighbours, colleagues, customers … but … don’t mention the whiteness of white people we know.” As white people do not experience the racial burden we do because white people are viewed as “unraced.”

For Adjoa Andoh to star in and direct Richard III, this was important for me as throughout my school experience, Shakespeare’s work was positioned as white-only. As it wasn’t until I saw critiques by Black writers when I left school I began to appreciate it. She is the latest in a lineage, much to the disconent of some white critics. In my view, I think we need more anti-racist approaches to Shakespeare. Having Black actors at the centre doesn’t make these approaches automatically anti-racist, but it is a step in the right direction.

Whenever I think about the numbers of Black actors that have done Shakespeare, I am brought back to David Oyelowo’s reflections on being the first Black actor to play an English king at the Royal Shakespeare Company [RSC]. The flack he recieved from academics at the time was significant, showing the whiteness and elitism are still centralised in arts.

“When the RSC came to me after drama school and wanted me to play Henry VI, I knew what the significance of that was but I didn’t know I would be the first Black person ever to have played an English king at the RSC. I spent weeks defending that piece of casting on the phone, on my lunchbreak, while we were rehearsing because an Oxford don had said: “we open ourselves to ridicule if we allow Black people to play these kinds of parts.'” It sort of blew up in the process and I became a mouthpiece for colour-blind casting” – David Oyelowo

Black Hollywood: They Gotta Have Us (2016)

Following actors like David Harewood in Othello (National Theatre, 1997), Sophie Okonedo as Margaret D’Anjou in screen adaptations of Henry VI and Richard III in The Hollow Crown (BBC, 2015), and Paapa Essiedu in Simon Godwin’s Hamlet (RSC, 2018), Adjoa Andoh is part of a thread. Here, Black actors are in roles “claimed” under the whiteness of the arts establishment – and to embrace this, with Andoh as the only Black character, is to emphasise the whiteness of the England we live in. The othering of England reverberates all around us and this reimagining of Richard III … it left me thinking.

Sophie Okonedo plays Queen Margaret D’Anjou (The Hollow Crown, 2015)

Depictions of Richard in popular media have largely been those that view him as a hunchbacked usurper. In today’s language, they are incredibly ableist – using his reported physical disabilities as a way to emphasise his evilness. In the BBC’s The White Queen, Richard (played by Aneurin Barnard) is also unflattering, whilst Harry Lloyd plays his ghost in The Lost King – a film about the search for his grave which ended up being under a Leicester City carpark. Benedict Cumberbatch also took on the role in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown. In popular media, the screen has done an effective job vilifying him.

However, this new depiction (which was playing at The Rose in Kingston in May) positions Richard as misunderstood – but, by no means innocent! This play is very much explicitly set in a Britain well-acquainted with the othering of human beings. Based on William Shakespeare’s original, written in 1590, well within the years of the beginning of England’s slave-trading exploits starting in 1562 when “adventurer” John Hawkins went ‘gallivanting’ across the Atlantic. The existence of Black Tudors has long been written on – more recently by Miranda Kaufmann and Onyeka Nubia, but there is lineage in print going back to Peter Fryer, Imtiaz Habib, Folarin Shyllon and David Dabydeen too all the way back to the 1980s.

“Shakespeare was also writing during a time when racial and religious difference were profoundly present and contest in society; this was when the concept and defintion of race was being formed due to the fact that England and Europe had been establishing trade links overseas, engaged in enslaving Black Africans.”

Farah Karim-Cooper (Official Programme, 2023)

Watching Richard III at The Rose in May, I felt this reimagining was something much needed in the twenty-first century. If it was left up to the Oxford dons, I fear we would still have white actors in blackface playing Othello. Set in the rurality of the Cotswolds, this takes inspiration from Andoh’s upbringing, with her characters’ accents to match!

Attending the Q&A afterwards, we also find out how this play started – a passion project. In the official programme, Andoh talks about being one of the only brown faces growing up in Cotswolds in the 1960s and 1970s. For those of us who grew up in provincial Britain, Andoh’s story is sorely relatable. Whilst Northampton is now diverse (relatively), when I was growing up in the early 2000s it wasn’t as mixed as it is now. Furthermore, going to school in a village and all my friends living in the countryside, I spent a lot of my time out near the meadows and lakes. Andoh’s experiences growing up extend to Richard’s experience othered by his community, described as an investigation of racialised trauma.

Clocking in at nearly three hours in length, this play did test my patience. And with Andoh surrounded by white people, it is clear what aesthetic was intended: one where Black and Brown people are viewed as intruders into the “sameness” of white spaces. The play drags at times but it achieves what it aims to do. Black women having to appease the feelings of white people is a tale as old of time. Its commentary of whiteness and space is incredibly revealing, especially when we are not invited into that space (who space belongs to and who spaces are designed for revisits how whiteness is ultimately about ownership).

David Harewood as Othello (Source: National Theatre, 1997)

With numbers of Black and Brown students in schools, we need anti-racism centralised in the English Literature curriculum. And for white students, they must see depictions of people that are not white too (in short, to decolonise their minds as well). Ambereen Dadabhoy and Nedda Mehdizadeh’s new book Anti-Racist Shakespeare is a must here!

In Richard III, we have a lone Black character surrounded by white people. And eclipsed by two older siblings between Richard and the throne, and others, one must question what one would do achieve power given the right circumstances. It is no secret in the adaptations that he killed his own family to achieve power. However, if he was never embraced by the ‘village’ in the first place, one must ask why / why not?

“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth” – African Proverb.

Tré Ventour-Griffiths
Tré Ventour-Griffiths
Tré Ventour-Griffiths is a neurodivergent practitioner-academic as both a Public Historian of Black British History and a creative writer. His work has been published in zines, edited books, and journalism, while he has also worked with organisations in the arts, education, third sector, and others on various projects linked to race and disability. https://linktr.ee/treventoured

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