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Review: Richard II at Omnibus Theatre

“That England, that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”

Few works are as prescient to our modern political landscape as Shakespeare’s Richard the Second. Full of usurped leadership, dogmatic instability and dangerous deposition, the plot may as well have been lifted directly from the last few years of British history. 

Produced by Tangle Theatre, a touring company that champions African Caribbean artistic excellence, this interpretation combines powerful live Zimbabwean music with modern set and costume design, whilst sticking closely to the original script. The music, an original score by Zimbabwean composer John Pfumojena, is arguably one of the stars of the show, proving a powerful emotional outlet for grief, longing and power that runs throughout the play.

I was curious to see such a sparse set on entering the auditorium, the stage made up of masonry ladders at various heights dotted across the space. This curiosity quickly changed to joy as each ladder was utilised in a unique way, forming, in no particular order: a throne, castle turrets, a fireplace, a garden, and a mount for combat lances. 

Despite remaining true to Shakespearean English, the language itself is also given an updated treatment, with a comical interlude from two gardeners performed in a Jamaican patois twang that is delivered wonderfully from the actors. I thoroughly enjoyed the acting in this piece, particularly from Courtney Winston (Gaunt/Northumberland/Gardener), who, with a change of posture and a removal of his glasses, is at once transformed from elderly uncle to powerful advisory figure. Equally, Daniel Rock, who plays the titular King Richard in the piece, carves out a spectacular professional debut for himself, the below-the-surface emotion of the work raging in his volcanic eyes as he battles for his throne. What is sadly missing in this production is the inclusion of more female figures central to the plot, although Lebogang Fisher’s turn as King Richard’s cousin, Edward Aumerle, is a moving, masterful performance that stayed with me after the curtain fell. The expansion of this character (a near-silent part in the original script) provides the hesitancy needed to counterbalance the dynamism of the power struggle in the play, the gender-swapped addition here raising even more poignant questions around male ego (I’m looking at you Parliament).

“The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw, and wounds the earth if nothing else with rage.”

The themes of the play could not be more resonant, with the first public performance presented just hours after the resignation of Liz Truss, and rehearsals taking place mere moments after the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. The questions raised around monarchy, politics and the rights of rulers feel as volatile today as they did in the 1590s when the deposition scene was censored for fear of controversy during the rule of Elizabeth the First. In the identity crisis of King Richard, as with the quiet vengeance of Henry Bolingbroke, we see shadows of our nation’s political tragedies.

Overall, this production is fresh and bold, with acting infused with tremorous passion for the bard, the play brought roaringly into the 21st Century. Rather than pander to tokenistic ideas of diversity for diversity’s sake, Tangle’s origination process respects the differing cultural perspectives of its African Diaspora artists, sharpening the lens of introspection into how Shakespeare should be performed and by whom. The inclusion of Zimbabwean music, the modern lighting/stage design, and the false glint of the oft thrown fabric crown, prove fertile ground for a truly original and timely performance that pulses with the low thrum of rebellion.

Richard The Second runs until 27th November, and is presented in association with MAST Mayflower Studios.


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About Tangle Theatre:

Since founding in 2009 Tangle has become a leading force for championing African and Caribbean artistic excellence. Their work has changed the landscape for African Caribbean people. They have enabled over 100 isolated and disenfranchised communities and more than 2,000 professionals access to top quality arts and training, promoting cultural cohesion and tolerance.

About Omnibus Theatre:

Omnibus Theatre is a multi-award-winning independent theatre in Clapham, South London. The heart of their ambitious programme, inspired by the building’s literary heritage, lies in both classics re-imagined and contemporary storytelling. Omnibus provide a platform for new writing and interdisciplinary work, aiming to give voice to the underrepresented and challenge perceptions. They believe in affordable tickets and theatre for all.

Since opening in 2013 notable in-house productions include Woyzeck (2013), Macbeth (2014), Colour (2015), Mule (2016), Spring Offensive (2017), Zeraffa Giraffa (2017), Queens of Sheba (2019) and The Little Prince (2019). Omnibus Theatre is led by Artistic Director Marie McCarthy. They are a registered charity and receive no core funding.

Patrons include Dame Judi Dench, Sir Michael Gambon, Lord Michael Cashman, Matthew Warchus, Sir Richard Eyre and Maggi Hambling.

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