Richard the Second review – an unfinished but promising production | Theatre

Founded in 2009, Tangle Theatre Company’s aim is to champion African and Caribbean artistry by performing classic texts in an African “township” style, with the emphasis on strong storytelling, musical accompaniment and simplicity of presentation. Here, aluminium stepladders are clumped together on an otherwise bare stage; actors move into the space, filling it with movement and song (Colin Falconer’s design; music by Zimbabwean composer John Pfumojena).

Company founder and director Anna Coombs presents Shakespeare’s multi-peopled history play with an ensemble of just five multi-skilled actors. This stripping back effectively and affectively tightens the focus on the conflict between the titular “hero” and his challenger, Bolingbroke, bringing into stark relief the contrasts between the two men. Elsewhere, though, something is lost by the eradication of Shakespeare’s powerful women’s roles. I especially missed Queen Isabella in the gardening scene, engagingly played as this was by Courtney Winston (also Gaunt and Northumberland) and by the ever-excellent Sibusiso Mamba (also Mowbray and York). The gender imbalance is only partially compensated by having Aumerle, Richard’s vacillating cousin, played by Lebogang Fisher (hers a fine performance, in all senses).

As Richard, Daniel Rock conveys with intelligent sensitivity the intricate range of the king’s feelings, from petulance and intransigence in power to introspection and philosophising once deposed. This is a tremendous professional debut from Rock (building, no doubt, on his experience of playing the king while training at Lamda); the poetry of the lines is alive in him. Raheim Menzies imbues Bolingbroke with physical and psychical presence, radiating implacable strength against Richard’s fluid changeability (occasionally undermined by a less-than-assured delivery of the lines). Coombs, however, does not allow this clash of opposites to conclude simplistically; ultimately, even though weak, “unking’d” and imprisoned, Richard sounds depths of humanity that make his usurper appear, by contrast, shallow and insecure.

If this Richard II is typical of Tangle’s work, I look forward to seeing more. That said, the performance I attended had a not-quite-finished feel. Some elements were solidly in place – Pfumojena’s music, threaded through the acts, was always terrific, as were the fights directed by Jonathan Waller. Other features were off-kilter. In particular, the lighting design, by Hansjörg Schmidt, had not taken into account the problems of achieving its demanding precisions given short get-in times and the wide range of spaces to which it has to be adapted. Although its powerful beams slicing architecturally through darkness felt dramatically and conceptually appropriate, they did not always work as intended: too often, actors were lost to view. Early-day weaknesses aside, I found much to admire in this co-production with Southampton’s Mast Mayflower Studios, which looks set to grow in strength and depth along each stage of its tour.