Interview: Adjoa Andoh

Interview: Adjoa Andoh

Interview: Adjoa Andoh

As she heads to Rose Theatre to direct and star in Richard III, we talk to the actor about her passion for bringing Shakespeare to the stage, starring in Bridgerton and her life in south west London

Villainous anti-hero Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most powerful characters,scheming and murdering anyone who gets in his way of becoming king. Adjoa Andoh wanted to approach it through a different lens, looking at how he was seen as evil because of his appearance and what that can do to the soul.

Adjoa says she has long felt a connection to the character because of how he was treated. Growing up in rural England in the 1960s, she felt she was singled out. “Richard was a character that resonated with me. People are mean to him because of what he looks like and it’s not fair. It’s not who he is as a person. That was my experience in my childhood.”

In her production of Richard III, in which she directs and stars in the lead role, she will examine race and trauma. The play is a collaboration between Rose Theatre, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse Theatres, and follows Adjoa’s critically-acclaimed production of Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe.

She is an ardent Shakespeare fan, not only for his characters but also for his universal stories. “It doesn’t matter if the character happens to be a king or a jester, there is something human about them all that we can relate to. The stories deal with everything… trust, being scared, being in love, falling out with parents…

“Shakespeare can be seen as this tedious thing you have to study for GCSE, full of ye olde language. But they are only stories being told in slightly different words.”

“But they have to be told clearly so with every word that comes out of an actor’s mouth, the actor needs to know what they’re talking about, and they need to say it in such a way that the audience knows what they’re talking about too. That’s communication. Our job isn’t to make the audience feel stupid or excluded in any way, our job is to say, ‘Come on in. We’re going to tell you a story. What did you think about that? Did you laugh? Did you cry? Were you scared?’ I want audiences to feel that they’ve been welcomed, and that we are catering to them, not in spite of them.”

Directing and starring in the play has both advantages and challenges. Adjoa welcomes it all. “I want to direct it because it’s long been a dream in my head, and of course, I want to play Richard because I fell in love with him when I was under 10, so the advantage for me is that I get to build the playhouse and then I get to play in it.”

Given the play reflects some of her own childhood experiences, I ask Adjoa what she would say to her younger self now. “I’d say, ‘Look at you. That’s amazing. You got to do that play and do that thing you loved when you were a kid.’ It’s a privilege… I’m able to earn a living and do all of this off the back of it.”

Adjoa collaborated with Christopher Haydon, artistic director of Rose Theatre, in 2017 when he ran the Gate Theatre. Christopher asked Adjoa what she’d like to direct for the spring season, and it was Richard III she picked. She is very much looking forward to coming to Kingston.

“I’m thrilled that the Rose has given me the space to do this lovely piece of work. I’m really looking forward to being in a theatre new to me and knowing that the show is fantastically supported by Chris and Robert [O’Dowd, chief executive] and a great production team.”

It also has the advantage of being on her doorstep. She has lived in Brixton for many years, and divides her time between her homes in south west London and Sussex.

She was first drawn to the area in the 80s because of its multiculturalism. “I love the variety of language and food and culture, and I love the vibrancy of the place. I started off living in squats. I learned how to lay concrete floors and hang ceilings and build door frames and window frames and do plumbing. This is where I did my coming of age and where I raised my kids so I feel that this is my base.”

As to her favourite spots in the area, she says: “I love Brixton market, Brockwell Park and the lido. I love Ruskin Park, which is next to the church. That’s my church. It’s where I got married, where my daughter got married and is next to the primary school where all my kids went.”

Adjoa is married to the writer Howard Cunnell. They met in Battersea Arts Centre, where he was running a bookshop and she had a theatre company.

Adjoa, who turned 60 in January, shot to global fame as Lady Danbury in the Netflix hit Bridgerton. She also played Dr Isaacs in the psychological thriller Fractured, DI Nina Rosen in BBC1’s Silent Witness, and Nenneke in the Netflix fantasy drama, The Witcher. Her stage work is just as prolific with roles including Condoleezza Rice in Stuff Happens and Serafina Pekkala in His Dark Materials, both at the National Theatre. Hollywood has also beckoned: in 2009, she starred alongside Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus.

So, what have been her favourite characters to play? Says Adjoa: “I generally love the character I’m playing at the time. However, I did a play years ago called In The Bunker With The Ladies. I played a young girl keen to join a singing group. It had all these war songs and me doing terrible magic tricks with the audience. I was singing songs like We’ll Meet Again with people watching who had lived through the war not knowing if they ‘d see their beloveds again. The show was funny, heartfelt and there was a lesbian romance at the heart of it. I think that’s probably one of my favourites.”

“And obviously, I love Lady Danbury because she’s her own woman. I like characters who are their own selves. I think quite often we get shrunk down into a version of what seems to be acceptable womanhood, or the stereotypes of women – the ones who are fighting each other, or have been broken-hearted in love. I’m interested in the women who may have had those things happen in their life, but carry on regardless because that’s what you have to do. They navigate through it, so they can live the best life they can and support and protect the people they love.”

Speaking of Bridgerton, which is filming a third series and has a spin-off centred on Queen Charlotte soon to drop, what is the secret of its success? Adjoa says a lot of it is down to its inclusivity: “It’s incredibly releasing to have a show that comes along and says, ‘you can be gay, you can be straight. You can be of any race you like. Everybody is welcome.’ Equally, you might just like a costume drama. I think that wide embrace to audiences of all types is really powerful.”

So after a crazy busy couple of years, what’s next? She is co-producer of production company Swinging the Lens and she is a Booker Prize judge this year. She adds: “There’ll be time for me to think about season four of Bridgerton, and a couple of writing projects that I’ve got on the go. There’s lots on the horizon. But I think what I’m really looking forward to is having some time to potter in my garden at home in Sussex, swim in the sea and eat ice creams on the beach…”

Rose Theatre and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatres in association with Swinging the Lens
6 – 22 April, Liverpool Playhouse
26 April – 13 May, Rose Theatre

Image: Suki Dhanda.