Is it possible to make an audience empathise with Shakespeare’s tyrannical Richard III? Adjoa Andoh gives it a good go in her fresh new adaptation for Liverpool’s Playhouse and the Rose Theatre in Kingston, in which the Bridgerton star takes on the title role as well as directing.

Her king is no pantomime villain. Instead, he is, in Andoh’s words, “punching up”. Having been pathologised and ostracised because of his appearance – here manifest in skin colour rather than humps and limps – this Richard of Gloucester is determined to bludgeon his way if not to acceptance then to absolute power. As brother to the sitting king, Edward IV, one could question how punched down upon Richard really is. And yet something in Andoh’s wide-eyed charisma and relatively diminutive stature – she is shorter than the rest of the cast, thus constantly looking up at them – makes one forget initially that, right from the outset of the play, Richard is scheming to fulfil his own bitter ambition.

Richard III starring Adjoa Andoh & Daniel Hawksford at the Playhouse, Liverpool. Credit: Shonay Shote

Adjoa Andoh and Daniel Hawksford at the Liverpool Playhouse. Credit: Shonay Shote.

A woodland West Country setting combines with Yeofi Andoh’s folk-inspired score to complement these contradictions. This is a world of Morris-style dancing and crowns of twigs; bucolic and yet somehow menacing and riddled with secrets. As the violence intensifies, with Richard’s assassins dispatching his brother, nephews and erstwhile allies before he takes the crown, charisma turns to mania and Andoh really lets rip. Richard is fully revealed to be a silver-tongued, ruthlessly astute political climber, a character for our times perhaps, as bloodthirsty as he is self-pitying. By then it is too late. Too many have let themselves be manipulated by Richard for too long and resistance from within cannot succeed. It takes the arrival of heroic Richmond and his army amassed in France to halt the despot at Bosworth.

Daniel Hawksford strides about as Richmond, arrived with his Welsh accent to save England and become Henry VII, in such a way that would have appealed to Shakespeare’s Tudor paymasters. Yet the real force comes from a quintet of powerful female performances. Andoh, playing male and with her woman’s form othering Richard further in a world of male nobility, is outstanding. Her slithering duplicity as a male villain sits in perfect contrast to the rooted force of the maternal love and female fury spat back at Richard by the women whose husbands and children he has slain. His own mother, Elizabeth of York (Caroline Parker), is magnificent in her world-weary yet defiant condemnation.

Richard III starring Adjoa Andoh & Phoebe Shepherd at the Playhouse, Liverpool. Credit: Shonay Shote

Adjoa Andoh and Phoebe Shepherd at the Liverpool Playhouse. Credit: Shonay Shote.

There are some elements of this three-hour production that don’t quite hit the mark. The rationale for depicting one of Richard’s young nephews through puppetry isn’t clear, and the costumes for the ghosts who haunt the king’s dreams before Bosworth are too endearing – more big green children’s TV character than menacing apparition – to meet that scene’s full dramatic heft. Yet after her acclaimed Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe, this Richard III looks set to reaffirm Andoh as a great re-inventor of the Bard’s work.

By Fran Yeoman

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This review was also published in the i.

Richard III is at the Liverpool Playhouse until April 22, 2023 and then at the Rose Theatre, Kingston from April 26 until May 13, 2023.

For information on ticket prices and show times for Liverpool Playhouse, click here.